The blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) is an important vector of emerging human pathogens. It has three blood-feeding stages, as follows: larva, nymph, and adult. Owing to inefficient transovarial transmission, at least for the Lyme disease agent (Borrelia burgdorferi), larval ticks rarely hatch infected, but they can acquire infection during their larval blood meal. Nymphal ticks are primarily responsible for transmitting pathogens to hosts, including humans. The transition from uninfected host-seeking larva to infectious host-seeking nymph is therefore a key aspect of human risk of infection. It can be divided into a series of steps, as follows: finding a host, taking a blood meal, becoming infected, molting, and overwintering. The chance of succeeding in each of these steps may depend on the species identity of the blood meal host. We used a Bayesian method to estimate the molting success of larval I. scapularis collected from four commonly parasitized species of birds and eight commonly parasitized small and mid-sized mammals found in the forests of Dutchess County, New York. We show that molting success varies substantially among host species; white-footed mice, veeries, and gray catbirds support particularly high molting success, whereas ticks feeding on shorttailed shrews, robins, and wood thrushes were less successful. We also show that larval molting success varies substantially between individual blood meal hosts, and that this intraspecific variability is much higher in some species than in others. The causes of both inter- and intraspecific variation in molting success remain to be determined.
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Vol. 48 • No. 4