Authors:Sándor Hornok, Maria Mulvihill, Krisztina Szőke, Enikő Gönczi, Kinga M. Sulyok, Miklós Gyuranecz and Regina Hofmann-Lehmann
Man-made barriers are well known for their effects on ecosystems. Habitat fragmentation, for instance, is a recognised consequence of modern-day infrastructure. The aim of the present study was to investigate the diversity and abundance of tick species, as well as the risks of acquiring tick-borne infections in habitats adjacent to a freeway. Therefore, ixodid ticks were collected from the vegetation at two-week intervals (in the main tick season, from March to June) in eight habitats of different types (forest, grove, grassland) along both sides of a freeway. Ixodes ricinus females were molecularly screened for three species of tick-borne bacteria. In the study period, 887 ixodid ticks were collected. These included 704 I. ricinus (79.4%), 51 Dermacentor reticulatus (5.7%), 78 D. marginatus (8.8%), 35 Haemaphysalis inermis (3.9%) and 19 H. concinna (2.1%). There was no significant difference in the abundance of tick species between similar habitats separated by the freeway, except for the absence of Dermacentor spp. on one side. In I. ricinus females, the overall prevalence of Anaplasma phagocytophilum was low, and (in part due to this low rate) did not show significant difference between the two sides of the freeway. Rickettsia helvetica had significantly different overall prevalence between two distant habitats along the same side of the freeway (12.3% vs. 31.4%), but not between habitats on the opposite sides. Borrelia burgdorferi s.l. showed significantly different overall prevalence between habitats both on the same and on the opposite sides of the freeway (8.6–35.9%), and the difference was higher if relevant habitats were also separated by the freeway. Importantly, the prevalence rate of the Lyme disease agent was highest in a forested resting area of the freeway, and was significantly inversely proportional to the prevalence of A. phagocytophilum (taking into account all evaluated habitats), apparently related to deer population density. Prevalence rates of these bacteria also differed significantly on single sampling occasions between: (1) closely situated habitats of different types; (2) distant and either similar or different habitat types; and (3) habitats on the opposite sides of the freeway. In conclusion, the findings of the present study show that a fenced freeway may contribute to differences in tick species diversity and tick-borne pathogen prevalence along its two sides, and this effect is most likely a consequence of its barrier role preventing deer movements.