An experimental test to compare potential and realised specificity in ticks with different ecologies

A. Raoul Van Oosten*, Dieter J.A. Heylen, Joris Elst, Sophie Philtjens, Erik Matthysen

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


    The majority of studies on ecological specialisation rely on data reflecting realised specificity, without considering species’ potential specificity. Most species of ticks, a large family of hematophagous ectoparasites, have a narrow host range in nature, but it is unclear whether this is due to host-driven adaptations or other processes (such as off-host abiotic environment). We investigated the potential specificity of two tick species with contrasting ecology by infesting three avian host species that occur in the same off-host macrohabitat but are unequally infested by the ticks in nature (i.e. have contrasting realised specificity). The endophilic specialist tick Ixodes arboricola resides inside the hosts’ nest and has high realised host specificity, whereas the exophilic generalist tick I. ricinus encounters hosts in the field and has very low realised specificity. As hosts, we used great tits (frequently infested by both tick species), blackbirds (frequently infested by I. ricinus but never by I. arboricola) and great spotted woodpeckers (no ticks of either species have been reported). If realised specificity is constrained by host-driven adaptations there should be no differences between potential and realised specificity, whereas if realised specificity is constrained by other processes potential specificity and realised specificity should be different. We found that attachment rates and weight during feeding of I. arboricola were lower on blackbirds than on great tits, whereas there were no such differences for I. ricinus. No ticks of either species attached to woodpeckers. These results indicate that realised host specificity of ticks is, at least partially, constrained by host-driven adaptations. This specificity therefore strongly depends on the ticks’ encounter rates with particular host types, which are affected by the ticks’ off-host ecological requirements, behaviour and life-history characteristics.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)487-501
    Number of pages15
    JournalEvolutionary Ecology
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016


    • Ectoparasites
    • Habitat specialisation
    • Host specificity
    • Ixodes arboricola
    • Ixodes ricinus


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