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Bluetongue virus infection creates light averse Culicoides vectors and serious errors in transmission risk estimates.

  • Author(s): McDermott, Emily G;
  • Mayo, Christie E;
  • Gerry, Alec C;
  • Laudier, Damien;
  • MacLachlan, N James;
  • Mullens, Bradley A
  • et al.


Pathogen manipulation of host behavior can greatly impact vector-borne disease transmission, but almost no attention has been paid to how it affects disease surveillance. Bluetongue virus (BTV), transmitted by Culicoides biting midges, is a serious disease of ruminant livestock that can cause high morbidity and mortality and significant economic losses. Worldwide, the majority of surveillance for Culicoides to assess BTV transmission risk is done using UV-light traps. Here we show that field infection rates of BTV are significantly lower in midge vectors collected using traps baited with UV light versus a host cue (CO2).


We collected Culicoides sonorensis midges in suction traps baited with CO2, UV-light, or CO2 + UV on three dairies in southern California to assess differences in the resulting estimated infection rates from these collections. Pools of midges were tested for BTV by qRT-PCR, and maximum likelihood estimates of infection rate were calculated by trap. Infection rate estimates were also calculated by trapping site within a dairy. Colonized C. sonorensis were orally infected with BTV, and infection of the structures of the compound eye was examined using structured illumination microscopy.


UV traps failed entirely to detect virus both early and late in the transmission season, and underestimated virus prevalence by as much as 8.5-fold. CO2 + UV traps also had significantly lower infection rates than CO2-only traps, suggesting that light may repel infected vectors. We found very high virus levels in the eyes of infected midges, possibly causing altered vision or light perception. Collecting location also greatly impacts our perception of virus activity.


Because the majority of global vector surveillance for bluetongue uses only light-trapping, transmission risk estimates based on these collections are likely severely understated. Where national surveillance programs exist, alternatives to light-trapping should be considered. More broadly, disseminated infections of many arboviruses include infections in vectors' eyes and nervous tissues, and this may be causing unanticipated behavioral effects. Field demonstrations of pathogen-induced changes in vector behavior are quite rare, but should be studied in more systems to accurately predict vector-borne disease transmission.

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