Field of Science

The Mites of Springs

The Euroepan groundwater-inhabiting Stygohydracarus subterraneus, from here.

Arachnids might not normally be thought of as aquatic animals, but there are a number of arachnid lineages that have taken up a wetter way of life. Among these, it should come as no surprise that a number of them can be found among the mites, because mites are everywhere*. The Athienemanniidae, the subject of today's post, are a family in one of the most diverse lineages of aquatic mites, the Hydrachnidia.

*Including on you. Right now.

Hydrachnidians are themselves one of the major subgroups of the mite lineage known as the Parasitengonina (briefly referred to in this post). The larval stage of the Parasitengonina, as the name of the group suggests, are parasitic on other animals, while the second nymphal and adult instars are free-living predators. Between each of these stages (i.e. at the first and third nymphal instars) is a non-feeding instar that could be thought of as a 'pupal' stage. As with an insect's pupal stage, parasitengoninans go through a significant physical transformation between stages (and I'm not just talking about the addition of an extra pair of legs between larva and nymph—all mites do that). Mature hydrachnidians are often heavily sclerotised, but larval hydrachnidians (like female ticks) are soft and membranous around the sides so they can swell up full of their host's internal juices.

A North American spring mite, Chelomideopsis besselingi, photographed by I. M. Smith.

The Athienemanniidae are one of the smaller mite families, with only fourteen currently recognised genera (Walter et al. 2009). Distinctive features of the family include a dorsoventrally flattened capitulum (the 'head-like' region of the animal incorporating the chelicerae and the pedipalps) and a rotated pedipalp, with the tarsus (the terminal segment) not visible from the side. The lifestyle of most athienemanniids remain little studied, but where known the larvae are parasites of midge larvae (for reasons about to become clear, this is probably not the case for all species). A number of species of Athienemanniidae are found in streams and springs, but the family is also diverse in the hyporheic zone, the region of sediment beneath and alongside streams where the water contained in the stream mixes with the groundwater. With their flattened, armoured bodies, athienemanniids would be well suited for crawling among the pockets of water between sand and gravel grains. There are also a number of species that have become adapted to live in the groundwater itself and may be found deep below the surface.

Despite the relatively small number of recognised species, the Athienemanniidae have been divided between four subfamilies. The great majority of species belong to the Athienemanniinae, which is also the most widespread subfamily. Species of Athienemanniinae are known from surface to ground waters in Eurasia, Africa and North America, and a single species Anamundamella zelandica is known from groundwater in New Zealand. The other subfamilies all contain small numbers of species in more restricted areas. The genera Stygameracarus and Africasia are each placed in their own subfamily; Stygameracarus is found in hyporheic gravels in North America, and Africasia in streams in southeastern Eurasia and tropical Africa (Walter et al. 2009). The subfamily Notomundamellinae contains four genera found in hyporheic gravels in Australia (Smit 2007).

The world diversity of Athienemanniidae is undoubtedly underestimated, perhaps significantly so. Sampling hyporheic and groundwater habitats can be a difficult process, and species found in these habitats generally exist at very low population densities. Even sampling previously productive localities may not be guaranteed to yield a result (Smit [2007] named one of the Australian athienemanniid species Janszoonia difficilis because of the difficulty in collecting the type specimen). And even if you do find them, you still have to wonder what it is that they're finding to eat down there.


Smit, H. 2007. New records of hyporheic water mites from Australia, with a description of two new genera and ten new species (Acari: Hydrachnidia). Records of the Australian Museum 59: 97-116.

Walter, D. E., E. E. Lindquist, I. M. Smith, D. R. Cook & G. W. Krantz. 2009. Order Trombidiformes. In: Krantz, G. W., & D. E. Walter (eds) A Manual of Acarology, 3rd ed., pp. 233-420. Texas Tech University Press.

Porcelain Fans

Mature specimen of Rhapydionina deserta, from Loeblich & Tappan (1964).

Calcareous foraminiferans have been featured on this site before: planktic floaters, living stars, microscopic jelly moulds and gigantic reef-formers. All these forms have belonged to the group of calcareous forams known as the rotaliids. Today's subject is another group of forams, the Rhapydionininae, belonging to a different calcareous group, the Miliolida. Miliolids may have shell walls made of calcite like the rotaliids, but differ in the wall structure: while the walls of rotaliids are glass-like and porous, those of miliolids are structured like porcelain. Phylogenetic studies of forams have not placed the miliolids close to the rotaliids, and the two groups seem to have evolved their secreted shells independently (Sen Gupta 2002).

Rhipidionina liburnica, from Loeblich & Tappan (1964).

The Rhapydionininae were defined by Loeblich & Tappan (1964) as a group of miliolids with a conical test composed of broad chambers stacked one on top of another (the overall shape being kind of like a fan or an ice-cream cone), with each of these chambers subdivided by internal septa into multiple chamberlets (the difference between a 'chamber' and a 'chamberlet' being that the latter are not completely divided from each other by the walls). The opening of the test took the form of a sieve-like array of pores at the top end. However, subsequent researchers have discovered that Loeblich & Tappan's definition was inadequate. Rhapydioninines start life growing as a flat spiral, with growth becoming linearised at maturity. However, it turns out that not all Rhapydionininae become linear; some retain their juvenile coiling into maturity (Vicedo et al. 2011). At least some species are believed to have both a linear megalospheric form and a coiled microspheric form. To explain, forams can be divided between microspheric forms, in which the first chambers of a new test are much smaller, and megalospheric forms with larger initial chambers. In those relatively few forams whose life cycles have been studied in detail, these two forms correspond to an alternation of generations, with a mostly microspheric asexually-reproducing generation giving rise to the generally megalospheric sexually-reproducing phase. Loeblich & Tappan's (1964) concept of rhapydionines, therefore, would have potentially placed members of a single species into separate families.

Diagram of internal structure of two adult chambers of Cuvillierinella, from Vicedo et al. (2011). Key to abbreviations: ap f = apertural face, c chl = cortical chamberlets, flo = floor, m chl = medullar chamberlet, prp = preseptal space, rpi = residual pillars, s = septum, sl = septulum.

Rhapydionines are best known as fossils, with a definite range from the Upper Cretaceous to the mid-Eocene (Loeblich & Tappan 1984). Believe it or not, whether there are still rhapydioninines in the world is something of an open question. Loeblich & Tappan (1964) listed two Recent genera in the Rhapydionininae, each represented by only a single known specimen. Ripacubana conica was originally described from sand deposits in Cuba; however, Loeblich & Tappan (1964) suggested that Ripacubana may actually represent what has been referred to as a 'zombie taxon'. Some of you may be familiar with the palaeontological concept of a 'Lazarus taxon', where a species disappears from the fossil record only to reappear at a later date. What has actually happened in these cases is that the species had only become locally extinct, but survived in some other locality that has not been preserved, subsequently recolonising its old range. A 'zombie taxon', however, is one that has genuinely become extinct at the earlier date, but its fossilised remains have since been transported into a younger sediment deposit, giving the impression that it survived later than it did*. In the case of Ripacubana, it is difficult to know just how long a foram shell buried in sand has been lying there.

*Identifications of Lazarus taxa also have to be on the look-out for 'Elvis taxa': where the more recent population does not in fact represent the same species, but a different species that has convergently evolved similar features.

Craterites rectus, from Loeblich & Tappan (1964).

Loeblich & Tappan (1964) did not express the same reservations about Craterites rectus, described from a beach on Lord Howe Island east of Australia. Craterites was later separated as its own subfamily by Loeblich & Tappan (1984) on the basis of its being attached to the substrate, and so differing from other free-living Rhapydionininae. Nevertheless, they kept the two subfamilies together as the family Rhapydioninidae, so Craterites may still be the only known survivor of the rhapydioninine lineage. However, with only one known specimen, the details of the internal structure of Craterites remain unknown.


Loeblich, A. R., Jr & H. Tappan. 1964. Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt C. Protista 2. Sarcodina, chiefly "thecamoebians" and Foraminiferida, vol. 1. The Geological Society of America and The University of Kansas Press.

Loeblich, A. R., Jr & H. Tappan. 1984. Suprageneric classification of the Foraminiferida (Protozoa). Micropaleontology 30 (1): 1-70.

Sen Gupta, B. K. 2002. Modern Foraminifera. Springer.

Vicedo, V., G. Frijia, M. Parente & E. Caus. 2011. The Late Cretaceous genera Cuvillierinella, Cyclopseudedomia, and Rhapydionina (Rhapydioninidae, Foraminiferida) in shallow-water carbonates of Pylos (Peloponnese, Greece). Journal of Foraminiferal Research 41 (2): 167-181.

The Wool Plants

Vegetable lamb, as illustrated in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (ca 1360).

Medieval legend in Europe spoke of a strange animal that could supposedly be found far off in central Asia: the vegetable lamb. According to legend, this was an animal much like an ordinary sheep except that it grew directly from a plant, to which it remained attached by the umbilical cord. The vegetable lamb would sustain itself by grazing on nearby vegetation but when this was depleted, as the lamb could not move away from the plant to which it was attached, the lamb would die. How such a pointlessly self-defeating organism was supposed to persist does not appear to have concerned the medieval lexicographers; presumably it was supposed to be allegorical of something.

Opening fruit of Gossypium hirsutum, photographed by B. P. Schuiling.

Part of the reason for the legend's persistence, however, was that there was indeed a form of 'wool' that came from a plant: cotton. The cotton genus Gossypium comprises about fifty species found in tropical and subtropical regions around the world (Wendel et al. 2010). Members of the genus vary from herbaceous perennials to small trees. The genus is divided into four subgenera, most of which are geographically distinct. The subgenus Gossypium is found in Africa and Arabia, subgenus Sturtia in Australia, and subgenus Houzingenia in the Americas. These three subgenera between them include the diploid cotton species; the fourth subgenus Karpas is also found in the Americas but differs in containing tetraploid species. Genetic evidence indicates that the subgenus Karpas arose at some point in the very recent past (within the last one or two million years) from a single hybridisation event between a species of subgenus Gossypium and one of Houzingenia, probably as a result of some chance dispersal event from Africa. Gossypium seeds seem well suited to dispersal: seeds of the Hawaiian Island species G. tomentosum have apparently germinated after being kept immersed in artificial seawater for three years (Wendel et al. 2010)! This same predicection for dispersal has resulted in the tetraploid species rapidly becoming widespread despite their recent origin, and in producing two species in remote locales: the Hawaiian G. tomentosum is directly related to the mainland G. hirsutum, while the Galapagos G. darwinii is sister to the mainland G. barbadense.

Levant cotton Gossypium herbaceum, photographed by H. Zell.

Commercial cotton is grown from four species of Gossypium, which may have each been domesticated independently in prehistoric times. All Gossypium species produce seeds with a covering of fuzzy hairs, but seeds of the two Old World diploid species G. herbaceum and G. arboreum also possess an outer layer of longer, flatter hairs that can be woven into thread. It was one of these two species, or possibly some now-extinct close relative, that made the crossing over the Atlantic to become one ancestor of the tetraploid species; as a result, the tetraploid species also possess these long outer hairs. Two of the tetraploid species, G. barbadense and G. hirsutum, were also domesticated, and the latter of these is now by far the most abundant cotton species in cultivation*.

*In case you were wondering, no-one seems to have suggested that the island species related to the two American domesticates might have been human-dispersed.

Sturt's desert rose Gossypium sturtianum, from here.

Other diploid Gossypium species do not possess this longer outer hair layer, only the inner short layer, and are not sources of commercial cotton (though hybrids with some of these species have been used to breed desirable genetic traits into the commercial species). In one group of Australian species (the section Grandicalyx) found in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia, the hair layer has become very sparse and the seeds are almost hairless. These seeds also possess fatty bodies called eliosomes that are attractive to ants, and the plants are dispersed by having hungry ants carry their seeds away. Grandicalyx species are seasonal herbs, dying off above ground during droughts only to resprout from their thick root-stock. Other Australian species include the Sturt's desert rose Gossypium sturtianum, the floral emblem of Australia's Northern Territory.

Gossypium gossypioides, from here.

As with other plant groups, hybridisation appears to have been a recurring factor in the evolution of Gossypium. The diploid Gossypium species have been divided between eight genome groups, hybrids between which are generally not viable (though not unknown: the parents of the tetraploid lineage, for instance, belonged to separate groups). However, genetic studies of some Gossypium species have identified discrepancies where a species may possess the nuclear genome of one group, but the chloroplast genome of another. For instance, the North American species G. gossypioides resembles other New World species in its nuclear genome, but has chloroplasts related to those of G. herbaceum or G. arboreum (which it may have acquired as a result of the same hybridisation event that produced the tetraploid species*). This phenomenon, which has been called cytoplasmic introgression, may have arisen in cotton through a process called semigamy. Semigamy is a particular form of apomixis (reproduction without fertilisation) in which sperm and egg cells fuse cytoplasmically, but their nuclei remain distinct (Curtiss et al. 2011). These nuclei will eventually be segregated by cell division, resulting in offspring that are mosaics of male- and female-line genomes. Over time, selection or drift may produce a homogenous population that retains the nuclear genome of one ancestor, but the cytoplasmic heritage of the other.

*The American parent of the tetraploids has more usually been identified as G. raimondii, a South American species, but G. raimondii is the direct sister species of G. gossypioides. It may be that G. gossypioides is the true parent of the tetraploids, or it may be that it too is derived from G. raimondii or its parent stock).


Curtiss, J., L. Rodriguez-Uribe, J. McD. Stewart & J. Zhang. 2011. Identification of differentially expressed genes associated with semigamy in Pima cotton (Gossypium barbadense L.) through comparative microarray analysis. BMC Plant Biology 11: 49.

Wendel, J. F., C. L. Brubaker & T. Seelanan. 2010. The origin and evolution of Gossypium. In: Stewart, J. McD., D. Oosterhuis, J. J. Heitholt & J. R. Mauney (eds) Physiology of Cotton pp. 1-18. Springer.


The grey warbler or riroriro Gerygone igata, photographed by Peter Bray.

The eighteen recognised species of the genus Gerygone are an assemblage of small, drab-coloured birds found mostly in the Australo-Papuan region, with G. sulphurea found in the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia and the Philippines, and G. flavolateralis found in New Caledonia and Vanuatu. These are another group of birds that have tended to draw the short straw in the vernacular name stakes: G. igata, one of the most abundant of New Zealand's native birds, is usually identified by the uninspiring 'grey warbler'. Personally, I prefer the more onomatopoeiac Maori name for these lively little birds: 'riroriro' (it has been suggested in some circles that it could possibly be referred to as the 'grey gerygone'; this proposition shall be treated with the scorn that it deserves). The riroriro and its congeners feed on small insects that they mostly glean from leaves or small branches, generally in the middle to upper canopies (Ford 1985). A certain amount of their prey is caught in the air, while the riroriro and the brown warbler G. mouki of eastern Australia also forage in lower vegetation than other species. The riroriro is also the only Gerygone species known to forage on the ground (Keast & Recher 1997).

Gerygone species build hanging purse-shaped nests; this is a brown warbler Gerygone mouki photographed by Peter.

Somewhat unusually for a decently-speciose passerine genus, the circumscription of Gerygone has been fairly stable in recent years, and the genus has mostly been supported as monophyletic. The only exception of recent times has been the New Guinean G. cinerea, recently reclassified by Nyári & Joseph (2012) as a species of Acanthiza. In the early 1900s, some authors divided Gerygone species between smaller genera (for instance, the Australian ornithologist Gregory Mathews, who never met a genus he couldn't break down). One species so separated was the Chatham Island warbler G. albofrontata, which is something of an island giant compared to other Gerygone species, weighing about 12 g while other species are about 6 to 7 g (Keast & Recher 1997). Unfortunately, the Chatham Island warbler was not included in the phylogenetic analysis of Gerygone by Nyári & Joseph (2012), but it was not identified as significantly separate from other Gerygone species in the morphological analysis by Ford (1985).

The Chatham Island warbler Gerygone albofrontata, from here.


Ford, J. 1985. Phylogeny of the acanthizid warbler genus Gerygone based on numerical analyses of morphological characters. Emu 86: 12-22.

Keast, A., & H. F. Recher. 1997. The adaptive zone of the genus Gerygone (Acanthizidae) as shown by morphology and feeding habits. Emu 97: 1-17.

Nyári, Á. S., & L. Joseph. 2012. Evolution in Australasian mangrove forests: multilocus phylogenetic analysis of the Gerygone warblers (Aves: Acanthizidae). PLoS One 7(2): e31840.