Ectoparasitism during an avian disease outbreak: an experiment with Mycoplasma-infected house finches and ticks

Dieter J. A. Heylen, Maria Teresa Reinoso-Perez, Laura Goodman, Keila Dhondt, Andre A. Dhondt

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    Hosts are typically co-parasitized by multiple species. Parasites can benefit or suffer from the presence of other parasites, which can reduce or increase the overall virulence due to competition or facilitation. Outcomes of new multi-parasite systems are seldom predictable. In 1994 the bacterium Mycoplasma gallisepticum jumped from poultry to songbirds in which it caused an epidemic throughout North America. Songbirds are often parasitized by hard ticks, and can act as reservoirs for tick-borne pathogens. We tested the hypothesis that Mycoplasma infection in house finches influences North America's most important tick vector Ixodes scapularis, by affecting the tick's feeding success, detachment behaviour and survival to the next stage. Most ticks detached during the daylight hours irrespective of the bird's disease status and time since infestation. Birds incrementally invested in anti-tick resistance mechanisms over the course of the experiment; this investment was made earlier in the Mycoplasma-infected birds. At higher tick densities, the feeding success on birds with more severe conjunctivitis was lower than in the uninfected birds. Throughout the experiment we found positive density dependent effects on the tick's feeding success. More diseased hosts suffered more from the tick infestations, as shown by reduced haematocrits. Three Mycoplasma-infected birds died during the weeks following the experiment, although all birds were kept in optimal housing conditions. Mycoplasma made the bird a less accessible and valuable host for ticks, which is an example of ecological interference. Therefore, Mycoplasma has the potential to ultimately reduce transmission outcomes of tick-borne pathogens via songbird hosts.

    Original languageEnglish
    JournalInternational Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife
    Pages (from-to)53-63
    Number of pages11
    Publication statusPublished - 2020


    • Co-pathogen
    • Ecological interference
    • Ectoparasite
    • Haemorhous mexicanus
    • Ixodes scapularis
    • Mycoplasma gallisepticum
    • VIRUS
    • BIRDS
    • ACARI


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