Limited consequences of infestation with a blood-feeding ectoparasite for the nestlings of two North Pacific seabirds

Hipfner, Mark; Bertram, Douglas; Drever, Mark

5 November 2018

The seabird tick Ixodes uriae parasitizes over 60 host species in the circumpolar regions of both hemispheres. To assess the impacts of these ticks on the growth and development of nestling seabirds, we used a logistic growth model to interpolate between successive measures of mass (g) and wing chord (mm) for 558 Cassin’s auklet Ptychoramphus aleuticus and 344 rhinoceros auklet Cerorhinca monocerata chicks over 11 years (1997-2008, less 2003) on Triangle Island, British Columbia, Canada. From the model, we estimated the asymptotic measure and the age at inflection point for each chick’s growth trajectory, and assessed their relationships with tick load relative to other sources of annual and seasonal variation in growth. Most chicks (72.4% of Cassin’s auklets, 62.2% of rhinoceros auklets) hosted ≥1 ticks, and the median tick load on infested chicks was two in both species. Infestation rates varied by a factor of about two among years (0.42 to 0.87 overall), but were uncorrelated between species and with air temperatures over the preceding winter. The probability of hosting a tick declined strongly with chick age, mainly in the first 20 days after hatching, and to near zero by fledging. Asymptotic weights and/or wing lengths declined with tick load in both species, but at normal loads the reductions were minor relative to those imposed by other factors; only at very high loads, which were rare, were effects likely to be biologically relevant. Tick load and survival to fledging were unrelated in both species. While our study found little influence of ticks, we believe there is need for further study of the relationships between parasites and seabird demography, especially in light of ongoing environmental change.