Identifying Ixodes tick species most likely to vector future zoonoses is a critical step toward more effective surveillance and prevention of tickborne disease. Understanding what traits best predict an intrinsic capacity to harbor and transmit zoonotic infections will also facilitate a mechanistic understanding of why some Ixodes tick species are better at acquiring and/or transmitting zoonotic infection compared to other species. Here, we report a profile of tick traits that distinguish zoonotic vectors from non-vectors of Ixodes tick species with > 90% accuracy. On the basis of these traits, our model identifies particular species with high probabilities of vectoring one or more zoonotic diseases as potential targets for increased investigation and surveillance.
The most important predictor of zoonotic vector status in Ixodes ticks was the diversity of vertebrate species parasitized by the tick. This finding is consistent with the general principle that the probability of vectoring a zoonotic disease correlates directly with host range [11, 12]. Several anatomical features were also highly predictive of vector status. Larvae of vector species tend to have shorter tarsus I lengths (length of the first segment of the first pair of legs) compared to non-vectors. The larval stage is important because acquisition of zoonotic pathogens (e.g., Lyme spirochetes) often occurs during the blood meal at this stage . Moreover, if infected at this stage, larvae have two potentially infectious bites through which to transmit pathogens to new hosts, compared to one bite if infected as a nymph. In all three life stages, tarsus I contains many important sensory organs, including Haller’s organ, which promotes habitat-, host-, and mate-seeking behaviors by determining host location, host odors, detecting pheromones, and serving other environmental sensory functions . If the size of Haller’s organ scales allometrically with the length of tarsus I in larvae, tick species with shorter tarsus I lengths than expected for larval body size may indicate a decreased selectivity towards particular host species providing the first blood meal in the tick life cycle. Reduced host selectivity at this stage could lead to more generalized feeding preferences across a wider diversity of host species and environments, increasing the possibility of contact with competent zoonotic hosts that can successfully transmit infection to larval ticks. In a post hoc analysis, we found that ticks with shorter tarsus I lengths at the larval stage indeed fed upon a more diverse host range (infesting hosts from more taxonomic orders) (Additional file 2: Figure S2, p = 0.01, F1,43 = 7.05). This pattern was absent at the other life stages (nymphs: p = 0.96, F1,40 = 0.003; adult females: p = 0.82, F1,79 = 0.05; adult males: p = 0.59, F1,53 = 0.30). In addition to validating comparative patterns across species, future empirical work could explore the relationships between tarsus I and Haller’s organ sizes and their effects on host selectivity in controlled experiments.
Another important trait distinguishing vectors from non-vectors was the capitulum length in larvae, nymphs, and adult females. Capitulum length is determined by hypostome length and salivarium size in ticks. The hypostome is a the ratchet-like anchor within the capitulum that is inserted into the host body [14, 15], and the salivarium is a repository that collects and delivers tick saliva. Tick saliva contains bioactive molecules responsible for facilitating blood meals and can contain zoonotic pathogens such as Borrelia burgdorferi (causative agent of Lyme disease) and Francisella tularensis (causative agent of tularemia), among others . We found that capitulum lengths were shorter in adult female and larval vectors than those of non-vectors, and that capitulum length in nymphal vectors was longer in zoonotic vectors. This pattern is consistent with widely documented patterns of vector competence of Ixodes species that transmit pathogens that cause anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Lyme disease: of the three developmental stages, the nymphal stage is disproportionately responsible for human transmission . With softer substrates like those encountered in human and other mammal hosts, ticks benefit from a more secure anchor conferred by deeper penetration of mouthparts that comprise the capitulum . Secure attachments lead to increased feeding times, which increase the probability of successful transmission for tick-borne pathogens [15, 16]. Such stage-dependent relationships between capitulum length and feeding behaviors and outcomes (i.e., host breadth, transmission success) present another set of testable hypotheses that, if validated, may suggest that capitulum length at the nymphal stage could be used as an indicator of the vectorial capacity of Ixodes tick species for zoonotic pathogens. In contrast, a shorter capitulum in larval and adult tick vectors may signal more generalized feeding that is less selective for particular host species, with host breadth ranging widely across several taxonomic groups.
Our analysis also suggest that Ixodes tick vectors may have a fecundity advantage over non-vector ticks , with larger adult females producing larger clutches. Specifically, body size, scutum length, and clutch size of adult females were all larger for zoonotic vectors compared to non-vectors. Larger body sizes enable the ingestion of larger blood meals from hosts, leading to greater resources available for egg production . Combined, these results suggest that zoonotic Ixodes tick vectors are most likely to be species where adult females produce a larger number of eggs, which develop into larvae that feed on a greater diversity of host species. These larvae may develop into nymphs whose capitula allow for more efficient and longer feeding times on soft-bodied hosts compared to non-vector species, leading to larger adult females with greater fecundity.
Our model identified 14 Ixodes tick species that showed ~ 80% probabilities of being undiscovered vectors of zoonotic disease on the basis of their trait similarity with known Ixodes vector species (Table 1). The majority of these species reside in Nearctic or Palearctic biomes, and all of them are habituated to forest or grassland habitats . Some of the ticks are suspected in the primary literature as being likely disease vectors, but are not currently recognized by the public health community as zoonotic vectors per se. For example, one species, Ixodes acuminatus, is capable of transmitting Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato, though it is not considered an important vector for human disease in nature, perhaps due to infrequent contact with humans . The saliva of another species, Ixodes rubicundus, causes paralysis in sheep , but to our knowledge there is no record of this species transmitting zoonotic infections to humans. Given that many of the 14 predicted Ixodes vectors are understudied and some of them are already suspected to have contact with, and potential health consequences for, humans (Table 1), our study offers new utility for identifying tick species whose intrinsic traits suggest they should be targets for enhanced zoonotic surveillance. In particular, the risk of future tick-borne zoonoses should be monitored in Nearctic and Palearctic regions, which are currently experiencing disproportionately rapid warming , and in regions experiencing large-scale ecological changes that are associated with increasing human population densities and declining biodiversity [23, 24]. In addition to informing the biological basis by which some Ixodes ticks vector zoonotic pathogens, our study underscores the crucial importance of basic research on ticks and other arthropod vectors, since understanding the biological underpinnings of transmission will rely fundamentally on understanding intrinsic characteristics distinguishing vector from non-vector species of Ixodes tick species.