Host-parasite interactions in birds

Even though nestbox-breeding birds are among the most popular model systems for ecological and evolutionary research, host-parasite interactions have received limited attention even in the most widely studied species such as great tits.

Since 2006 we have studied the ecology of three tick species (Ixodes ricinus, I. arboricola, I. frontalis), that co-occur on great and blue tits (in decreasing order of prevalence) but with widely varying life histories. We have documented patterns of prevalence, host choice and strategies of attachment/detachment from hosts, focusing in particular on the tree-hole tick Ixodes arboricola (PhD and postdoc project Dieter Heylen). We also studied genetic population structure, mating strategies and density-dependent feeding success of the same species (PhD project Raoul van Oosten). Further research investigated the role of bird ticks and songbirds in transmitting pathogens, notably Borrelia genospecies (postdoc Dieter Heylen). An ongoing FWO-funded project focuses on individual variation in Ixodes arboricola traits, allowing us to study heritability and evolutionary potential of life-history and morphological traits (PhD project Gerardo Fracasso).  See also our page on tick and tick-borne disease research.

In 2014 we broadened our scope to nest arthropod communities including parasites as well as commensal nest inhabitants and parasite predators (PhD project Lisa Baardsen). This project was part of a larger research network SPEEDY investigating eco-evolutionary responses of a wide range of taxa to urbanization and habitat fragmentation (see the SPEEDY website for more information).

Finally, in collaboration with the Terrestrial Ecology lab at the University of Gent we investigated variation in cloacal microbiota in house sparrows and great tits (PhD project Aimeric Teyssier).

Highlighted publications

Heylen, DJA & Matthysen E. 2011.
Experimental evidence for host preference in a tick parasitizing songbird nestlings.
Oikos 120: 1209-1216.  (download PDF -  0.6 Mb)

White J, Heylen D, Matthysen E. 2012.
Adaptive timing of detachment in a tick parasitizing hole-nesting birds.
Parasitology 139: 264-270.  (download  PDF - 0.4 Mb)

Heylen D, Tijsse E, Fonville M, Matthysen E, Sprong H. 2013.
Transmission dynamics of Borrelia burgdorferi s.l. in a bird tick community.
Environmental Microbiology, 15: 663-673.  (download PDF -  0.3 Mb)

Van Oosten AR, Matthysen E, Heylen DJA. 2016. The more the merrier - experimental evidence for density-dependent feeding facilitation in the bird-specialised tick Ixodes arboricola. Int J Parasitol 46: 187-193 doi:10.1016/j.ijpara.2015.11.002

Teyssier A, Rouffaer LO, Saleh Hudin N, Strubbe D, Matthysen E, Lens L, White J. 2018. Inside the guts of the city: Urban-induced alterations of the gut microbiota in a wild passerine. Science of the Total Environment 612: 1276-1286. (IF 4.9) dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.09.035