Pathogen communities of songbird-derived ticks in Europe’s low countries

Heylen, Dieter; Fonville, Manoj; Docters van Leeuwen, Arieke; Stroo, Arjan; Duisterwinkel, Martin; van Wieren, Sip; Diuk-Wasser, Maria; de Bruin, Arnout; Sprong, Hein

Birds play a major role in the maintenance of enzootic cycles of pathogens transmitted by ticks. Due to their mobility, they affect the spatial distribution and abundance of both ticks and pathogens. In the present study, we aim to identify members of a pathogen community [Borrelia burgdorferi (s.l.), B. miyamotoi, ‘Ca. Neoehrlichia mikurensis’, Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Rickettsia helvetica] in songbird-derived ticks from 11 locations in the Netherlands and Belgium (2012–2014).

Overall, 375 infested songbird individuals were captured, belonging to 35 species. Thrushes (Turdus iliacus, T. merula and T. philomelos) were trapped most often and had the highest mean infestation intensity for both Ixodes ricinus and I. frontalis. Of the 671 bird-derived ticks, 51% contained DNA of at least one pathogenic agent and 13% showed co-infections with two or more pathogens. Borrelia burgdorferi (s.l.) DNA was found in 34% of the ticks of which majority belong to so-called avian Borrelia species (distribution in Borrelia-infected ticks: 47% B. garinii, 34% B. valaisiana, 3% B. turdi), but also the mammal-associated B. afzelii (16%) was detected. The occurrence of B. miyamotoi was low (1%). Prevalence of R. helvetica in ticks was high (22%), while A. phagocytophilum and ‘Ca. N. mikurensis’ prevalences were 5% and 4%, respectively. The occurrence of B. burgdorferi (s.l.) was positively correlated with the occurrence of ‘Ca. N. mikurensis’, reflecting variation in susceptibility among birds and/or suggesting transmission facilitation due to interactions between pathogens.

Our findings highlight the contribution of European songbirds to co-infections in tick individuals and consequently to the exposure of humans to multiple pathogens during a tick bite. Although poorly studied, exposure to and possibly also infection with multiple tick-borne pathogens in humans seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

Geographic Areas


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Parasites & Vectors

More About This Work

Academic Units
Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology
Published Here
November 14, 2017


Keywords: Co-infection, Bird, Ixodes ricinus, Borrelia burgdorferi (s.l.), Borrelia miyamotoi, Rickettsiales