Effect of host populations on the intensity of ticks and the prevalence of tick-borne pathogens: how to interpret the results of deer exclosure experiments

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Deer are important blood hosts for feeding Ixodes ricinus ticks but they do not support transmission of many tick-borne pathogens, so acting as dead-end transmission hosts. Mathematical models show their role as tick amplifiers, but also suggest that they dilute pathogen transmission, thus reducing infection prevalence. Empirical evidence for this is conflicting: experimental plots with deer removal (i.e. deer exclosures) show that the effect depends on the size of the exclosure. Here we present simulations of dynamic models that take into account different tick stages, and several host species (e.g. rodents) that may move to and from deer exclosures; models were calibrated with respect to Ixodes ricinus ticks and tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) in Trentino (northern Italy). Results show that in small exclosures, the density of rodent-feeding ticks may be higher inside than outside, whereas in large exclosures, a reduction of such tick density may be reached. Similarly, TBE prevalence in rodents decreases in large exclosures and may be slightly higher in small exclosures than outside them. The density of infected questing nymphs inside small exclosures can be much higher, in our numerical example almost twice as large as that outside, leading to potential TBE infection risk hotspots.

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