Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Massachusetts
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Sirén, A.P.K., J. Berube, L.A. Clarfeld, C.F.Sullivan, B. Simpson, T.L. Wilson. 2024. Accounting for missing ticks: Use (or lack thereof) of hierarchical models in tick ecology studies. Ticks and Tickborne Diseases 15:102342. DOI: 10.1016/j.ttbdis.2024.102342.


Ixodid (hard) ticks play important ecosystem roles and have significant impacts on animal and human health via tick-borne diseases and physiological stress from parasitism. Tick occurrence, abundance, activity, and key life-history traits are highly influenced by host availability, weather, microclimate, and landscape features. As such, changes in the environment can have profound impacts on ticks, their hosts, and the spread of diseases. Researchers recognize that spatial and temporal factors influence activity and abundance and attempt to account for both by conducting replicate sampling bouts spread over the tick questing period. However, common field methods notoriously underestimate abundance, and it is unclear how (or if) tick studies model the confounding effects of factors influencing activity and abundance. This step is critical as unaccounted variance in detection can lead to biased estimates of occurrence and abundance. We performed a descriptive review to evaluate the extent to which studies account for the detection process while modeling tick data. We also categorized the types of analyses that are commonly used to model tick data. We used hierarchical models (HMs) that account for imperfect detection to analyze simulated and empirical tick data, demonstrating that inference is muddled when detection probability is not accounted for in the modeling process. Our review indicates that only 5 of 412 (1 %) papers explicitly accounted for imperfect detection while modeling ticks. By comparing HMs with the most common approaches used for modeling tick data (e.g., ANOVA), we show that population estimates are biased low for simulated and empirical data when using non-HMs, and that confounding occurs due to not explicitly modeling factors that influenced both detection and abundance. Our review and analysis of simulated and empirical data shows that it is important to account for our ability to detect ticks using field methods with imperfect detection. Not doing so leads to biased estimates of occurrence and abundance which could complicate our understanding of parasite-host relationships and the spread of tick-borne diseases. We highlight the resources available for learning HM approaches and applying them to analyzing tick data.