Field of Science

Zerconids

Slide-mounted male of Zercon gurensis, copyright Holger Müller.


The animal depicted above is a mite of the Zerconidae, one of the numerous families in the major mite clade known as the Mesostigmata. This family is mostly found in soil habitats such as leaf litter, mosses, decaying vegetation, or occasionally in animal nests (Lindquist et al. 2009). The zerconids are restricted to the Northern Hemisphere and are most diverse in temperate to Arctic regions; those species found in tropical parts of the world are restricted to high altitudes away from the hot lowlands (Ujvári 2012). Like many other Mesostigmata, they have the dorsal surface of the body mostly covered by shields of hardened cuticle. In most zerconids, separate shields cover the front (podonotal) and rear (opisthonotal) sections of the dorsum; the opisthonotal shield wraps around the rear margin of the mite and forms a continuous unit with the ventrianal shield that usually protects most of the underside of the mite behind the legs. Among the most noticeable features of the zerconids are two pairs of large openings near the rear of the opisthonotal shield (the four orange-segment-like structures in the photo above). These represent the openings of secretory glands, but I don't know if it has been established just what they're secreting; comparable structures in other mites may secrete pheromones, or defensive chemicals, or oils that prevent debris from sticking to the body. Other features of the zerconids include slender, relatively simple chelicerae that lack the modifications seen in the males of some other Mesostigmata, and peritremes (grooves on the underside of the body that channel air to the openings of the respiratory stigmata) that are relatively short. These peritremes are longer in zerconid nymphs, but become shortened when the mite moults to maturity.

Zerconids are another of those mite groups where the vast majority of what has been written about them relates to their basic taxonomy, with little yet known about their natural history. Several genera of zerconids are recognised, distinguished by features such as the shape of the body's various shields and the appearance of various setae. The form of their chelicerae indicates that zerconids are predatory like many other Mesostigmata. Because they are mostly found at ground level rather than on vegetation they have not attracted the economic interest of other predatory mites, but those few species that have been observed feeding were chowing down on nematodes. Mating does not appear to have been directly observed in zerconids, but again their anatomy and comparison with other mesostigs allows us to infer that the male fertilises the female by using his chelicerae to pass a spermatophore from his own genital opening on the underside of the body between the legs to hers. Where she then lays her eggs, and how her offspring spend their time to maturity, seem to be questions still awaiting an answer.

REFERENCES

Lindquist, E. E., G. W. Krantz & D. E. Walter. 2009. Order Mesostigmata. In: Krantz, G. W., & D. E. Walter (eds) A Manual of Acarology 3rd ed. pp. 124–232. Texas Tech University Press.

Ujvári, Z. 2012. Draconizercon punctatus gen. et sp. nov., a peculiar zerconid mite (Acari: Mesostigmata: Zerconidae) from Taiwan. Opusc. Zool. Budapest 43 (1): 79–87.

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