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Abiotic and habitat drivers of tick vector abundance, diversity, phenology and human encounter risk in southern California


The distribution, abundance and seasonal activity of vector species, such as ticks and mosquitoes, are key determinants of vector-borne disease risk, and are strongly influenced by abiotic and habitat conditions. Despite the numerous species of tick vectors in the heavily populated North American West Coast, all but Ixodes pacificus, the primary vector of the Lyme disease spirochete, is poorly characterized with regard to seasonal activity patterns and fine scale drivers of distribution and abundance, particularly in heavily populated regions of southern California. This lack of knowledge inhibits both scientific understanding and public health efforts to minimize vector exposure and risk of pathogen transmission to humans. Here we address this gap by characterizing the abiotic and habitat drivers of the distribution, abundance, and diversity of the vector tick community using fine scale temporal surveys over two seasons (2014 and 2015) across coastal and inland regions of Santa Barbara County, CA. We also characterize patterns of seasonal activity of the more common vector species to understand seasonality in risk of vector exposure, and specifically focus on human encounter risk using standardized tick drags as our method of collection. Leveraging plot-level habitat and abiotic variables in partial least squares regression analysis, we find the seven different vector species collected in this study have divergent drivers of activity and abundance. For example, I. pacificus is strongly associated with dense forest habitats and cool and moist microclimates, while Dermacentor occidentalis and Dermacentor variabilis, competent vectors of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, were found to be more tolerant of higher average temperatures and more open habitats. These results suggest that I. pacificus may be expected to experience reductions in geographic distribution and seasonal activity under projected land cover and climate change in coastal southern California, while D. occidentalis may experience more limited effects. We discuss implications for changing tick-borne disease risk associated with pathogens transmitted by Ixodes as well as Dermacentor species ticks in the western US, and contrast these predictions with eastern North America.

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