Season, weight, and age, but not transmissible cancer, affect tick loads in the endangered Tasmanian devil

Authors: Sophia Belkhir; Rodrigo Hamede; Frédéric Thomas; Beata Ujvari; Antoine M. Dujon



The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a carnivorous marsupial threatened by a transmissible cancer, devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). While we have a good understanding of the effect of the transmissible cancer on its host, little information is available about its potential interactions with ectoparasites.

With this study, we aimed to determine the factors driving tick loads in a DFTD affected Tasmanian devil population, using long-term mark-recapture data. We investigated the effect of a range of life history traits (age, weight, sex, body condition) and of DFTD (time since DFTD arrival and presence of tumours) on the ectoparasitic tick load of the devils.

Mixed effect models revealed that tick load in Tasmanian devils was primarily driven by season, weight, body condition and age. Young devils had more ticks compared to older or healthier devils. The reduction in Tasmanian devil population size over the past 14 years at the studied site had little effect on tick infestation.

We also found that devils infected by DFTD had a similar tick load compared to those free of observable tumours, suggesting no interaction between the transmissible cancer and tick load. Our study highlights seasonality and life cycle as primary drivers of tick infestation in Tasmanian devils and the need for further investigations to integrate devil stress and immune dynamics with ectoparasite counts.