Wild birds contribute to maintenance and dissemination of vectors and microbes, including those that impact human, domestic animal, and wildlife health. Here we elucidate roles of wild passerine birds, eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus), and Ixodes dentatus ticks in enzootic cycles of two spirochetes, Borrelia miyamotoi and B. andersonii in a region of Michigan where the zoonotic pathogen B. burgdorferi co-circulates.
Over a four-year period, wild birds (n = 19,631) and rabbits (n = 20) were inspected for tick presence and ear tissue was obtained from rabbits. Samples were tested for Borrelia spirochetes using nested PCR of the 16S-23S rRNA intergenic spacer region (IGS) and bidirectional DNA sequencing. Natural xenodiagnosis was used to implicate wildlife reservoirs.
Ixodes dentatus, a tick that specializes on birds and rabbits and rarely bites humans, was the most common tick found, comprising 86.5% of the 12,432 ticks collected in the study. The relapsing fever group spirochete B. miyamotoi was documented for the first time in ticks removed from wild birds (0.7% minimum infection prevalence; MIP, in I. dentatus), and included two IGS strains. The majority of B. miyamotoi-positive ticks were removed from Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). Borrelia andersonii infected ticks removed from birds (1.6% MIP), ticks removed from rabbits (5.3% MIP), and rabbit ear biopsies (5%) comprised twelve novel IGS strains. Six species of wild birds were implicated as reservoirs for B. andersonii. Frequency of I. dentatus larval and nymphal co-feeding on birds was ten times greater than expected by chance. The relatively well-studied ecology of I. scapularis and the Lyme disease pathogen provides a context for understanding how the phenology of bird ticks may impact B. miyamotoi and B. andersonii prevalence and host associations.
Given the current invasion of I. scapularis, a human biting species that serves as a bridge vector for Borrelia spirochetes, human exposure to B. miyamotoi and B. andersonii in this region may increase. The presence of these spirochetes underscores the ecological complexity within which Borrelia organisms are maintained and the need for diagnostic tests to differentiate among these organisms.