Environmental drivers of Ixodes ricinus abundance in forest fragments of rural European landscapes
Steffen Ehrmann , Jaan Liira , Stefanie Gärtner, Karin Hansen , Jörg Brunet , Sara A. O. Cousins , Marc Deconchat , Guillaume Decocq , Pieter De Frenne , Pallieter De Smedt, Martin Diekmann , Emilie Gallet‑Moron, Annette Kolb , Jonathan Lenoir , Jessica Lindgren , Tobias Naaf, Taavi Paal, Alicia Valdés , Kris Verheyen, Monika Wulf and Michael Scherer‑Lorenzen, BMC Ecology, 17 (1)
Background: The castor bean tick (Ixodes ricinus) transmits infectious diseases such as Lyme borreliosis, which constitutes an important ecosystem disservice. Despite many local studies, a comprehensive understanding of the key drivers of tick abundance at the continental scale is still lacking. We analyze a large set of environmental factors as potential drivers of I. ricinus abundance. Our multi-scale study was carried out in deciduous forest fragments dispersed within two contrasting rural landscapes of eight regions, along a macroclimatic gradient stretching from southern France to central Sweden and Estonia. We surveyed the abundance of I. ricinus, plant community composition, forest structure and soil properties and compiled data on landscape structure, macroclimate and habitat properties. We used linear mixed models to analyze patterns and derived the relative importance of the significant drivers.
Results: Many drivers had, on their own, either a moderate or small explanatory value for the abundance of I. ricinus, but combined they explained a substantial part of variation. This emphasizes the complex ecology of I. ricinus and the relevance of environmental factors for tick abundance. Macroclimate only explained a small fraction of variation, while properties of macro- and microhabitat, which buffer macroclimate, had a considerable impact on tick abundance. The amount of forest and the composition of the surrounding rural landscape were additionally important drivers of tick abundance. Functional (dispersules) and structural (density of tree and shrub layers) properties of the habitat patch played an important role. Various diversity metrics had only a small relative importance. Ontogenetic tick stages showed pronounced differences in their response. The abundance of nymphs and adults is explained by the preceding stage with a positive relationship, indicating a cumulative effect of drivers.
Conclusions: Our findings suggest that the ecosystem disservices of tick-borne diseases, via the abundance of ticks, strongly depends on habitat properties and thus on how humans manage ecosystems from the scale of the microhabitat to the landscape. This study stresses the need to further evaluate the interaction between climate change and ecosystem management on I. ricinus abundance.