In sexual organisms, the way in which gametes associate can greatly influence the maintenance of genetic variation, the structure of this variation in space, and ultimately organismal evolution. Based on patterns of genetic structure previously found, we explicitly tested whether adults of the sheep tick Ixodes ricinus pair according to their genetic relatedness. We sampled tick pairs from the vegetation in four natural populations and genotyped individual ticks at seven microsatellite loci. Based on this data, we observed highly significant assortative mating in two of the four locations, a pattern that could not be accounted for by a spatial autocorrelation in the distribution of related ticks. One explanation for these observations may be the existence of local host associations that develop independently in different populations. Assortative mating in I ricinus will have clear consequences for its population dynamics and, through processes of adaptation and transmission, may significantly alter the epidemiological patterns of the pathogens it carries, including the Lyme disease agent Borrelia burgdorferi s.l. Future tests will now be required to examine the mechanisms leading to this pattern and its epidemiological consequences.
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