New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2011) 35(1): 52- 60

Microhabitat choice and host-seeking behaviour of the tuatara tick, Amblyomma sphenodonti (Acari: Ixodidae)

Research Article
Stephanie S. Godfrey 1,*
Nicola J. Nelson 2
C. Michael Bull 1
  1. School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University, PO Box 2100, Adelaide 5001, Australia
  2. Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

Understanding the factors that influence patterns of ectoparasite infestation within wildlife populations involves knowledge of the mechanisms that influence host infestation. For ectoparasitic ticks, knowing where ticks might occur in the off-host environment and how they locate their hosts is essential to understanding patterns of ectoparasite infestation. The tuatara tick (Amblyomma sphenodonti) parasitises the tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) on Stephens Island, New Zealand. We completed a series of laboratory microcosm experiments to examine daily activity patterns, microhabitat preferences and host-seeking behaviour by Amblyomma sphenodonti. Firstly, to determine the diel activity pattern of ticks, we observed the behaviour of ticks every 2 h over a 48-h period. We then tested the preferences of ticks for soil moisture, soil texture and shade by offering different pairs of substrate conditions. Last, to determine what cues ticks used to locate their hosts, we tested the response of ticks to filter paper infused with host scent or excrement. Ticks were most active at night. They also showed a significant preference for moister, coarser and shaded substrates 12 h after the start of the experiment. Ticks did not show an immediate response to either of the two host stimuli, but after 12 h showed a significant preference for host scent and avoided host excreta. We suggest that the microhabitat preferences of ticks reflect conditions within host refuges (burrows), and that the delayed response to host odour suggests ticks could use host scent to identify substrates frequented by hosts.