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Mites

Acariformes & Parasitiformes

Mites are tiny arthropods belonging to the two superorders, Acariformes and the Parasitiformes of the class Arachnida. The body color of these arachnids ranges between brown, red, orange, black, green, or a combination of these shades. While some species belonging to families like Laelapidae and Dermanyssidae are carnivorous, many are parasitic, thriving on the host’s body. Some mites, such as Oribatids, play a crucial role in the ecosystem by decomposing dead and decaying matter in the soil and recycling nutrients.

Scientists have estimated around 45,000 to 48,200 known mite species, reflecting their remarkable adaptability across diverse habitats worldwide.

Description

Size

Most mites typically measure between 250 to 750 μm (0.01 to 0.03 inches), with the largest ones measuring around 6 mm (0.25 inches) in length, while the smallest adults are no bigger than 100 μm (0.004 in).

Body Plan

The bodies of mites are broadly divided into two segments: the cephalothorax or prosoma and the abdomen or opisthosoma. Both these regions are fused, and segmentation is only subtly seen due to the positioning of the appendages.

At the forefront of the body is the gnathosoma, or the capitulum, which functions as a retractable feeding mechanism composed of the chelicerae (specialized mouthparts), the pedipalps (additional appendages near the mouth), and the oral cavity. This capitulum is covered by an extension of the body’s outer shell, the carapace, and is attached to the main body through a flexible cuticle. The oral cavity extends backward, leading into the mouth and pharynx.

These arachnids typically possess four pairs of appendages, except those in the family Eriophyoidea, which have only two pairs. Each leg comprises six segments and may be adapted for specialized functions such as swimming. The body’s dorsal side is protected by hardened plates known as tergites, while the ventral side is covered by sclerites, which sometimes form horizontal ridges. The genital opening, called gonopore, is on the ventral side, between the fourth pair of legs.

Physiology

Circulatory System

Mites possess a relatively simple, open circulatory system compared to vertebrates. Most mites do not have a true heart, and hemolymph circulation is primarily driven by the contraction and relaxation of muscles within the body. These muscle contractions create pressure gradients that push hemolymph through the sinuses, facilitating the exchange of substances between cells and tissues. These sinuses are located between the internal organs and tissues, forming a network that allows hemolymph to flow throughout the body.

Certain parasitic mites, such as ticks and some larger species, possess a specialized structure called a dorsal heart. This heart is a muscular organ located along the dorsal side of the mite’s body. It contracts rhythmically, pumping hemolymph through the circulatory system, particularly in larger or more active species where passive circulation may be insufficient.

Respiratory System

Unlike insects, which typically have a network of tracheal tubes for gas exchange, mites lack a specialized respiratory system. Instead, they rely on a passive mechanism known as diffusion to obtain oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

Gaseous exchange occurs across the thin cuticle covering the mite’s body surface. Oxygen from the environment diffuses through the cuticle and into the mite’s body, while carbon dioxide produced during cellular respiration diffuses out of the body and into the surrounding environment. This process is facilitated by the relatively large surface area-to-volume ratio of mites, allowing for efficient gas exchange despite the absence of specialized respiratory structures within the body.

Respiration in many mites involves stigmata that are openings on the body surface, leading to their respiratory system. In certain species, these stigmata connect to peritremes, which are paired tubular extensions of the tracheal system.

Excretory System

The excretory system in mites includes a nephridium and one or two pairs of Malpighian tubules.

Nervous System

Like in other arthropods, the nervous system in mites is organized into a series of ganglia connected by nerve cords. They have a simple brain that integrates sensory information and coordinates motor responses throughout the body.

These arachnids also possess simple sensory receptors for detecting light, chemicals, temperature, humidity, and mechanical stimuli such as vibrations and touch.

Sense Organs

Digestive System

Mites possess a relatively simple digestive system tailored for their diverse feeding habits and small size. Their digestive system consists of the following key components:

Taxonomy

Originally, mites were thought to belong to two large orders of arachnids, the Acariformes and the Parasitiformes, that were grouped in the subclass Acari. However, subsequent genetic research suggests that Acari is polyphyletic, having multiple evolutionary origins. Further, a molecular study in 2010, using mitochondrial analysis, classified Acariformes as a sister group to the Solifugae (camel spiders) and Parasitiformes as a sister group to the Pseudoscorpionida (false scorpions.). 

Thus, mites and ticks are currently classified into two distinct superorders – Acariformes and Parasitiformes. The names of a few other orders, like Prostigmata, Astigmata, and Mesostigmata, are based on the location of the stigmata (if present) or the absence of it.

Mites (Acariformes and Parasitiformes)

Distribution

Mites are globally distributed, inhabiting a wide range of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems across all continents. However, they are particularly diverse in tropical regions, where warm and humid conditions provide a favorable growth environment.

Habitat

They are highly adaptable creatures, thriving in diverse habitats and often escaping casual sight due to their tiny size. From soil to forests, pastures to agricultural fields, and even within thermal springs and caves, mites occupy a broad spectrum of ecosystems. They even colonize various organic substrates, including leaf litter, where their populations are particularly abundant. While water mites or Hydrachnidia populate freshwater bodies, Halacaridae species are found in saltwater. 

Diet

Behavior

Parasitism

Some mite species, like gall mites, spider mites, and ticks, are parasitic, benefiting at the expense of the host organism. These mites have evolved multiple adaptations to exploit their hosts and may significantly impact the host’s health, behavior, and survival.

Dispersal

Since mites cannot fly, they have evolved several dispersal strategies to move from one place to another.

  1. Some mites climb to high points and adopt a dispersal posture, taking complete advantage of wind currents to fly them to new locations. Additionally, some mites release silk threads to balloon in the air, allowing them to be carried by the wind to new positions.
  2. They also engage in ‘phoresy,’ a strategy where the mites hitch onto larger organisms using claspers or suckers and travel long distances without spending much energy.

Lifespan

In mites, the lifespan can vary significantly depending on factors such as the type of species, environmental conditions, and availability of resources. Generally, mites have relatively short lifespans compared to other arachnids. Some mite species may complete their entire life cycle, from egg to adult, in just a few weeks, while others may live for several months under favorable conditions.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Mites have separate sexes, with the males having a pair of testes connected to the gonopore by a vas deferens and the females having a single ovary joined to the gonopore by an oviduct.

Sperm transfer in most mites is indirect, either through the deposition of spermatophores (aflagellate) picked up by females or through insertion by the male’s chelicerae or legs. However, in some species of Acariformes, insemination is direct via the male’s penis.

The eggs are laid in the substrate or habitat of the mite, where they take up almost six weeks to hatch, depending on the species. During hatching, the larvae emerge with six legs and undergo several molts to become eight-legged nymphs. Through subsequent molts, the nymphs reach adulthood, completing their life cycle.

Predators

These tiny arthropods face predation pressures from various organisms across different ecosystems.

Interesting Facts

  1. The oldest fossils of Acariform mites were discovered from the Rhynie Chert in Scotland, which dates to the early Devonian Period (410 million years ago), while the earliest fossils of Parasitiformes, preserved in amber, date back to the mid-Cretaceous Period (100 million years ago.)
  2. Archegozetes longisetosus, a tropical mite species, exhibits remarkable strength relative to its small size. This tiny arthropod, weighing just 100 micrograms, can lift up to 1,182 times its weight. This impressive feat of strength surpasses the lifting capacity of other animals by over five times.
  3. Paratarsotomus macropalpis is the fastest animal on Earth relative to its body size. This mite can achieve incredible speeds over short distances despite its minuscule stature.

References Article last updated on 4th April 2024
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