We evaluated the relationships between forest understory structure and the abundance of questing adult and nymphal blacklegged ticks, Ixodes scapularis Say (Acari: Ixodidae), in three Maine towns endemic for Lyme disease, 2001–2003. In fragmented New England woodlands, overabundant white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus Zimmerman, overbrowse palatable species, allowing browse-resistant exotic-invasive species to replace native forest understory structures. We predicted there would be more ticks in plots dominated by exotic-invasive shrubs (such as Japanese barberry, Berberis thunbergii DC) than in plots dominated by native shrubs, ferns, or open understory. We assessed canopy composition and closure, tree basal area, litter composition, percentage of coverage and stem density of understory species, litter depth, soil moisture, and abundance of small mammals and white-tailed deer pellet groups. We used generalized linear mixed model analysis of covariance to determine the effect of understory structure on tick counts, controlling for continuous habitat and host covariates and adjusting for random spatial effects. There were twice as many adults and nearly twice as many nymphs in plots dominated by exotic-invasives than in plots dominated by native shrubs. Both adult and nymphal counts were lowest in open understory with coniferous litter. Adults were positively associated with increasing litter depth, medium soil moisture, and increasing abundance of white-footed deer mice, Peromyscus leucopus Rafinesque, and deer pellet group counts. Nymphs were positively associated with increasing litter depth, moderately wet soil, and mice. We concluded that deer browse-resistant exotic-invasive understory vegetation presented an elevated risk of human exposure to the vector tick of Lyme disease.
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Vol. 43 • No. 6