Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Biological Sciences


Biological Sciences


College of Science and Mathematics


Gita R Kolluru; Larisa K Vredevoe

Advisor Department

Biological Sciences

Advisor College

College of Science and Mathematics


Parasites often have profound effects on the survival and evolution of their hosts, and hence on the structure and health of entire ecosystems. Yet basic questions, such as the degree of virulence of a given parasite on its host, and factors influencing which hosts in a population are at the greatest risk of infection, are vexingly difficult to resolve. The western blacklegged tick-western fence lizard (Ixodes pacificus-Sceloporus occidentalis) system is important, primarily because I. pacificus, a vector of the Lyme disease spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi, is dependent on S. occidentalis for blood meals in its subadult stages, and this lizard possesses an innate immune response that removes the Lyme disease pathogen from attached ticks. My study focused on two aspects of the I. pacificus-S. occidentalis interaction.

In Chapter 1, I investigated factors correlating with the intensity of I. pacificus infestations on S. occidentalis. Infection intensity (parasites per host) is often highly variable within a host population, though certain individuals, such as males, tend to be more heavily infected. Previous work in the I. pacificus-S. occidentalis system suggests that differences in behavior, such as the frequency of territorial patrols, may contribute to variation in tick intensity among lizards. I therefore hypothesized that lizard traits that correlate with dominance would also correlate with infestation intensity. Specifically, I predicted that larger and more colorful males would have higher infestation intensities than less impressive animals. In this chapter, I also focused on site selection by ticks infesting S. occidentalis. Skin folds on the necks of these lizards (nuchal pockets) may function to divert ectoparasites away from eyes, ears, and other potentially vulnerable structures. I therefore also looked for factors correlating with tick attachment in these pockets. I sampled ticks on adult male S. occidentalis in the spring and summer, which is the seasonal peak for both S. occidentalis territorial behavior and subadult I. pacificus abundance. After determining the site of infestation and intensity of ticks on these lizards, I re-infested lizards with laboratory-reared I. pacificus larvae, and again quantified tick intensity and attachment location. Contrary to expectation, no host traits correlated with tick intensity among ticks naturally infesting lizards, and lab-reared larval intensity was negatively correlated with lizard body size. As expected, ticks acquired by lizards naturally concentrated inside nuchal pockets, and I also observed this site preference among ticks in lab-based experimental infestations. Although the general pattern, lab-reared ticks were more varied in the sites on which they fed. There was a negative correlation between infestation intensity and the proportion of ticks attached in nuchal pockets. Unsurprisingly, the most reliable predictor of tick intensity and site selection was the season.

In Chapter 2, I explored how tick attachment affects male S. occidentalis contest behavior. I. pacificus infestation has been shown to have negative physiological impacts on S. occidentalis, but mechanisms linking physiological changes to ultimate fitness consequences have been largely underexplored. I hypothesized that tick infestation reduces male S. occidentalis fighting ability by reducing O2 carrying ­­capacity­, or by obstructing or damaging vulnerable structures on their hosts. I held fifty half-hour trials between pairs of size- and ventral badge-matched male S. occidentalis, with one male in each pair infested with lab-reared I. pacificus larvae. I found that tick infestation negatively correlated with aggressive behavior in these staged contests. In support of reduced O2 capacity as the mechanism of reduced aggression, my ecologically relevant infestation intensities seemed to cause significant declines in hematocrit among experimentally infested lizards relative to controls. However, the site at which ticks attached did not significantly correlate with the aggressiveness of their lizard hosts.

This is one of only a handful of studies to address the direct effect of I. pacificus on S. occidentalis. My study demonstrates that tick infestation can be detrimental to the fitness of their lizard hosts even without the transmission of pathogens. This insight may prove informative in future work on the ecology of I. pacificus-borne diseases in the western United States. This study is also one of only a few to use parasite infection to induce an asymmetry in fighting ability in intrasexual contests.