In California, dense woodlands have been recognized as important biotopes where humans are exposed to the nymphal stage of the western blacklegged tick, Ixodes pacificus Cooley & Kohls, the primary vector of the Lyme disease spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto (s.s.), in the far-western United States. To identify the principal reservoir host(s) of this spirochete, and of closely related spirochetes in the B. burgdorferi sensu lato (s.l.) complex, in dense woodlands in Mendocino County, California, ≈50 species of birds and mammals, including wood rats and kangaroo rats, were evaluated as potential hosts for vector ticks and borreliae in 2002 and 2003. Although polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and sequencing analyses revealed that many vertebrate species had been exposed to one or more members of the B. burgdorferi s.l. spirochetal complex, only the western gray squirrel, Sciurus griseus, fulfilled the major criteria for a reservoir host of B. burgdorferi s.s. Ear-punch biopsies from eight of 10 squirrels collected from five separate woodlands were PCR-positive for B. burgdorferi s.s., 47% of I. pacificus larvae (n = 64) and 31% of nymphs (n = 49) removed from squirrels contained B. burgdorferi s.l., and the engorgement status of I. pacificus larvae was associated positively with acquisition of spirochetes. Overall, 83 and 100% of the amplicons sequenced from PCR-positive I. pacificus larvae and nymphs, respectively, were identified as B. burgdorferi s.s. Among the five remaining positive I. pacificus larvae, three contained B. bissettii and two had uncharacterized B. burgdorferi s.l. Borrelia burgdorferi s.s. was detected in one of five larvae and zero of two nymphs of the Pacific Coast tick, Dermacentor occidentalis Marx, that likewise had been removed from squirrels. The rickettsial agent of human anaplasmosis, Anaplasma phagocytophilum, was detected in the blood or ear biopsies of two squirrels and in one (1.6%) of 64 I. pacificus larvae and two (4.1%) of 49 nymphs obtained from squirrels. The one rickettsial-positive larva was coinfected with B. burgdorferi s.s. The apparently high reservoir potential of S. griseus for B. burgdorferi s.s., plus the fact that the geographic distribution of this squirrel coincides well with that of most reported human cases of Lyme disease in this region, indicated that it may be essential for maintaining foci of B. burgdorferi s.s. in certain types of woodlands. The findings with respect to A. phagocytophilum, although of less certain significance, suggest that S. griseus could serve as a secondary host of this rickettsia.
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