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Animals, Humans, and Lyme Disease

You might think that the transmission of Lyme disease is very simple – you get it from a deer tick bite. This information is basically true, and if you just want to avoid Lyme disease, this is all you really need to know. What happens in the forest, however, is interesting and helps explain why Lyme disease is spreading and becoming more common.

Lyme transmission begins with the white-footed mouse, a common woodland creature that carries Borrelia burgdorferi, the organism responsible for Lyme disease. In the most common scenario, newly hatched larval Ixodes sp. ticks feed on mice and become infected with the organism. Ticks then develop through a pupal stage into an adult tick, which feeds on other hosts as they grow.

In both the pupal and adult stages, ticks are found attached to tall grasses in open woodlands and forest edges, the same type of habitat favored by White-tailed Deer. When a deer wanders off, the ticks climb in and get another blood meal. If it’s a human wandering around, or a dog, raccoon, or even a bird, the tick isn’t fussy—deer ticks will readily feed on all of these hosts as well as other warm-blooded animals.

Borrelia burgdorferi is passed to the new host as the tick feeds. Many animals are not affected by the organism and their immune systems simply kill it. White-tailed deer and some species of birds are among the lucky animals that do not contract Lyme disease. People, however, can suffer from a long and debilitating illness.

Deer are responsible for supporting large numbers of ticks. A deer can have hundreds of ticks feeding on it at any given time. Anyone who has driven the roads of Northeastern North America at dusk and dawn during the summer months knows that the white-tailed deer population is booming like never before. Deer graze on roadsides and wander through towns and gardens. Lots of deer means lots of ticks, and deer in human communities means Lyme transmission to humans.

However, deer do not spread Lyme disease over long geographical distances – birds do. When a deer tick bites a bird, two things can happen: if the bird is already infected, having been bitten by an infected tick somewhere else, the new tick becomes infected and can spread the organism to other hosts. If the tick is already infected and the bird is uninfected, the organism gets through to the other side, and because ticks take days to finish their meal, both the tick and the bird can be many miles from where they started before drop the tick. Both can now go on to transmit Lyme. Migratory birds are thought to have spread B. burgdorferi to many new locations.

A final factor to consider is global warming. Warmer climates have opened up new territories for deer ticks, and they now survive and reproduce in areas where they were previously unable to withstand cold winter temperatures. Thus, ticks carried on migratory birds are increasingly likely to survive the journey.

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