Main content area

The negative effect of wood ant presence on tick abundance

Zingg, Silvia, Dolle, Patrick, Voordouw, Maarten Jeroen, Kern, Maren
Parasites & vectors 2018 v.11 no.1 pp. 164
Formica polyctena, Ixodes, ant nests, correlation, data collection, ecosystem services, formic acid, habitats, human health, livestock, microclimate, models, nesting sites, pathogens, predation, temperate forests, ticks, vegetation cover, Switzerland
BACKGROUND: Ticks and tick-borne pathogens are a global problem for the health of humans and their livestock. Wood ants are important ecosystem engineers in forests worldwide. Although both taxa are well studied, little is known about their interactions under natural conditions. The purpose of the present field study was to test whether European red wood ants (Formica polyctena) influence the abundance of Ixodes tick populations in temperate forests. METHODS: Data collection took place in 130 sampling plots located at 26 ant nest sites paired with 26 control sites in northwestern Switzerland. At each sampling plot, tick abundance, ant abundance, ant nest volume and habitat variables (describing litter, vegetation and microclimate) were measured. We used linear mixed-effect models to analyze the abundance of questing ticks as a function of ant abundance and habitat variables. RESULTS: Ant nest volume, rather than the presence of ants, had a significant negative effect on tick abundance. The number of ticks decreased from 11.2 to 3.5 per 100 m² if the volume of the adjacent ant nest increased from 0.1 m³ to 0.5 m³. Additionally, high vegetation cover and litter depth had negative and positive relationships with tick abundance, respectively. CONCLUSIONS: We showed that the number of questing ticks was negatively correlated with the size of red wood ant nests. Further studies are needed to identify the mechanisms that drive the relationship. Possible mechanisms include the repellent effect of ant formic acid, and the predatory behavior of wood ants. The present field study suggests that red wood ants provide a new ecosystem service by reducing the local abundance of Ixodes ticks.