1. Over the past two decades, Ixodes scapularis, the primary tick vector of the Lyme disease pathogen Borrelia burgdorferi in North America has expanded its range northward from the USA to colonize new regions in southern Canada. We have previously projected range increases for I. scapularis based on temperature suitability, but to what extent this is matched by actual tick range expansion is unknown.
2. Since 1990, I. scapularis ticks have been collected across Canada offering a unique opportunity to track the range expansion of an arthropod vector. We used these data to model time-to-establishment for tick populations across Canada to identify factors influencing the rate of spread.
3. Our results point to both long-distance dispersal of ticks by migratory birds and local dispersal by resident hosts as important potential mechanisms underlying patterns of tick range expansion.
4. Temperature (accumulated degree days > 0 °C) was the most important determinant of environmental suitability for tick population establishment, suggesting that climate warming may facilitate range expansion.
5. Model projections suggest that I. scapularis range will expand c. 46 km year−1 in the coming decade, with climate warming expected to increase the rate of spread. This expansion is likely to result in a substantial increase in human Lyme disease risk, with the proportion of the human population of eastern Canada inhabiting areas with established tick populations increasing from 18% in 2010 to over 80% by 2020.
6. This first empirical model of I. scapularis invasion supports theoretical range projections based on climate suitability and provides a unique data-driven estimate of the speed of northward range expansion for I. scapularis at the continental scale.
7. Synthesis and applications. By tracking I. scapularis invasion in Canada over the past two decades, we show that I. scapularis is rapidly expanding its range and is likely to colonize the most densely populated areas of southern Canada in the coming decade. These projections suggest that prompt action is necessary to prepare the Canadian public for a likely epidemic of Lyme disease, with emphasis on focusing surveillance activities to confirm the locations of emerging Lyme disease risk.