In Mediterranean ecosystems, abiotic factors are known to affect vertebrate population dynamics, but little is known about how these factors affect population dynamics of parasites. We conducted a 9-year investigation of the roles of temperature, precipitation, and vector abundance as determinants of transmission of the non-native canine heartworm (Dirofilaria immitis), a dangerous parasite of pets, among coyotes (Canis latrans), an important reservoir, in north-coastal California. Dates of heartworm transmission and total annual transmission were determined, respectively, from lengths and numbers of heartworms found in known-age coyotes. Vector host-seeking activity was assessed through weekly mosquito trapping. Within years, heartworm transmission occurred only when cumulative temperatures were sufficient to allow larval heartworms to develop to the infective stage (as predicted by an existing degree-day model), and when suitable vectors were available. Most (95%) heartworms infected their hosts between 1 July and 14 September. The onset of transmission periods always occurred after the peak in vector host-seeking activity and varied annually. Transmission periods ended before temperatures became limiting due to absence of vectors. The timing of host-seeking activity of the primary vector species, Ochlerotatus sierrensis, also was correlated with the onset of warming temperatures such that parasite and vector phenology were synchronized. For this reason (partly), the variation in timing of seasonal warming had no detectable effect on total annual transmission. Abundance of host-seeking Oc. sierrensis was positively correlated with annual precipitation, and annual heartworm transmission was positively correlated with abundance of host-seeking Oc. sierrensis. Annual transmission also was positively correlated with abundance of a less numerous vector species, Anopheles punctipennis, and was directly correlated with precipitation. This study demonstrates that multiannual variability in temperature, which affects seasonality of transmission, has little effect on annual transmission, but that precipitation is a driving force determining annual transmission. These findings imply that in California, and possibly other Mediterranean climate zones, it is especially important to preventively treat pets in summers following high-rainfall winters.
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