Host identification in unfed ticks from stable isotope compositions (δ13C and δ15N)
Determination of the ratios of natural stable isotopes (13C/12C and 15N/14N) in unfed Ixodes ricinus nymphs and adults, which, in their previous stage, fed on captive wild rodents (Apodemus sylvaticus and Myodes glareolus), wild birds (Parus major and Cyanistes caeruleus) or domestic ruminants (Ovis aries and Bos taurus), demonstrated that it is possible to identify each host category with confidence. First, the tick–blood spacing, which is the difference between values obtained from ticks and the blood of hosts that they had fed on in the previous stage, was consistent (152 spacings investigated from 15 host individuals in total). Second, potential confounding factors (tick age and sex) did not affect the discriminatory power of the isotope patterns, nor did different rearing conditions (room temperature vs. 4 °C) or the duration of development (maximum of 430 days). The findings that the tick–blood isotope spacings, across a diverse range of hosts, were similar and predictable, and that confounders had little or no effect on this, strongly support the usage of the isotope approach. Because each of the host categories has a different role in the population dynamics of I. ricinus and in tick‐borne pathogen ecology, the method described here has great potential for the clarification of tick and tick‐borne pathogen ecology in the field.