Risk of human exposure to vector-borne zoonotic pathogens is a function of the abundance and infection prevalence of vectors. We assessed the determinants of Lyme-disease risk (density and Borrelia burgdorferi-infection prevalence of nymphal Ixodes scapularis ticks) over 13 y on several field plots within eastern deciduous forests in the epicenter of US Lyme disease (Dutchess County, New York). We used a model comparison approach to simultaneously test the importance of ambient growing-season temperature, precipitation, two indices of deer (Odocoileus virginianus) abundance, and densities of white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus), eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus), and acorns ( Quercus spp.), in both simple and multiple regression models, in predicting entomological risk. Indices of deer abundance had no predictive power, and precipitation in the current year and temperature in the prior year had only weak effects on entomological risk. The strongest predictors of a current year's risk were the prior year's abundance of mice and chipmunks and abundance of acorns 2 y previously. In no case did inclusion of deer or climate variables improve the predictive power of models based on rodents, acorns, or both. We conclude that interannual variation in entomological risk of exposure to Lyme disease is correlated positively with prior abundance of key hosts for the immature stages of the tick vector and with critical food resources for those hosts.
A long-term study of tick dynamics simultaneously assesses the impact of multiple ecological variables on Lyme disease risk and strongly implicates a role for rodent hosts and their food resources.