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Your Environment. Your Health.

Risk of vector tick exposure initially increases, then declines through time in response to wildfire in California

Climate Change and Human Health Literature Portal

MacDonald AJ, Hyon DW, McDaniels A, O'Connor KE, Swei A, Briggs CJ
Ecosphere. 9 (5): e02227

Identifying the effects of human-driven perturbations, such as species introductions or habitat fragmentation, on the ecology and dynamics of infectious disease has become a central focus of disease ecologists. Yet, comparatively little is known about how the ecology of zoonotic disease systems responds to catastrophic disturbance events such as wildfires or hurricanes. In California, wildfire disturbance is centrally important to the ecology of forests and oak woodlands and is projected to increase in severity and extent under future climate change. Here, taking advantage of a recent wildfire as a natural experiment, we investigate the effects of wildfire disturbance on the ecology of tick-borne disease in California oak woodlands. We find that wildfire leads to elevated abundance of questing adult and nymphal western blacklegged ticks (Ixodes pacificus) in the year following fire, relative to unburned control plots, but that vector tick abundance declines sharply in the following two years. We find that the abundance of non-competent hosts (western fence lizards) for the Lyme disease bacterium is unaffected by fire, but that the abundances of important reproductive hosts (deer) for ticks and reservoir hosts (dusky-footed woodrats) for tick-borne pathogens are significantly negatively affected by fire. We found ticks and hosts infected with Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato only within the burn extent and only in the year following the wildfire, though rates of infection were exceedingly low representing little risk to humans. In aggregate, due to the differential effects of this catastrophic disturbance event on different key host species and vector tick life stages in the transmission of tick-borne pathogens, we conclude that wildfire may potentially increase risk of exposure to vector ticks in the first year following wildfire in California, but that risk is dampened substantially in following years due to tick population declines and loss of key reservoir hosts from the system.

Expand Collapse Abstract

Resource Description

    Ecosystem Change, Extreme Weather-Related Event or Disaster
    • Extreme Weather-Related Event or Disaster: Wildfire
    United States
    Infectious Disease
    • Infectious Disease: Vectorborne Disease
    Research Article
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