Field of Science

False Spider Mites

Among the enormous diversity of the world's mites, some families are particularly notorious for the damage that they inflict on commercial plant crops. Among such Acari non grata are the spider mites of the family Tetranychidae or the gall mites of the Eriophyidae. But a third, equally notorious group is the false spider mites or flat mites of the Tenuipalpidae.

Red and black flat mite Brevipalpus phoenicis, false-colour SEM by Christopher Pooley.


False spider mites include about 800 known species of more or less flattened, slow-moving mites. They are closely related to the true spider mites and both families have the chelicerae modified into a pair of long, whip-like retractable stylets that are used to pierce and suck fluids from plant tissues. In the case of the false spider mites, though, their commercial infamy comes not only from the direct damage caused by the feeding mites themselves but also from the effects of transmitted viruses. Viruses transmitted by false spider mites include the causative agents of diseases such as citrus leprosis and coffee ring spot and may cause significant reductions in the yield and lifespan of infected plants.

Morphologically, false spider mites differ from true spider mites in the absence of what is called the 'thumb-claw' process, an arrangement of the tarsus of the pedipalp alongside a claw on the seta (hence the family name which means 'slender palp'). The palps are often reduced, with some species having only the barest remnant. Some species also show reduction in the fourth pair of legs, and females of a number of species are six-legged as adults. This merely stands as another example of how mite morphology functions purely to play silly buggers with anything one might learn in basic animal biology.

Hebe stem gall mites Dolichotetranychus ancistrus inside an open gall, copyright Plant and Food Research.


Parthenogenesis is also common in false spider mites. Species found in cooler climes will often overwinter as females, with a new generation of males not appearing until the next spring. In some species, eggs produced parthenogenetically will hatch into males; in others, they will produce females. A few species almost entirely lack functional males. A small group of these species in the genus Brevipalpus is unique among animals in being both parthenogenetic and genetically haploid.

Almost all forms of seed plant seem to be vulnerable to some form of flat mite or another; some mite species are very catholic in their tastes and will latch onto almost anything green and photosynthesising. Others are more discerning. How false spider mites make their way from one host plant to another is little known but they may be passively carried through the air on the wind. Alternatively, they may be inadvertently carried from place to place by feeding herbivores, or by the very human horticulturalists that suffer so much from their presence.

REFERENCE

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.

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