Field of Science

The Ornithocheyletiini: Making a Living off Birds

In an earlier post, I commented on the carnivorous mites of the family Cheyletidae. These rapacious micropredators are commonly associated with the nests and burrows of terrestrial vertebrates, attacking debris-feeders drawn in by the host's leavings. With such a close association already in place, it should come as little surprise that some lineages within the Cheyletidae have learnt to bypass scavenger predation and go directly to the source, becoming parasites of the vertebrate hosts themselves.

Slide-mounted female of Bakericheyla chanayi (left; scale bar = 50 µm) and nest webs on the skin of a heavily parasitised chaffinch Fringilla coelebs (right), from Filimonova (2013).

One such lineage is the Ornithocheyletiini, members of which are parasites of birds. Like other parasitic cheyletids, ornithocheyletiins have a relatively small, simple gnathosoma (the 'head' of the mite), no eyes, and lack the large, pectinate, claw-like setae found on the palps of free-living predatory cheyletids (instead, the setae at this position are small and smooth though they do still have hooked ends). Ornithocheyletiins are further distinguished from other cheyletids by having particularly large claws at the end of each leg that are overhung by a well developed knob on the end of the tarsus (Bochkov & Fain 2001).

Ornithocheyletiins live on the skin of their bird hosts. In the genera Ornithocheyletia and Bakericheyla, the mites spin a protective web beneath which they live and feed. Members of the tribe have been recorded from a number of bird orders, mostly smaller land birds (Passeriformes, Columbiformes, Piciformes, Coraciiformes, Psittaciformes and Apodiformes). At least one species of Ornithocheyletia was described from the Natal spurfowl Pternistis natalensis, a galliform. Members of the genus Apodicheles are restricted to species of Apodiformes (swifts) but other genera are found on a wider range of hosts. One cosmopolitan species, Bakericheyla chanayi, has been found on hosts of both the orders Passeriformes and Coraciiformes. The exact method of exploiting their host may vary: species of Bakericheyla feed on blood whereas Ornithocheyletia species feed on lymph fluid.

Historically, parasitic cheyletids were treated as a separate family Cheyletiellidae but are now classified with their free-living relatives. The exact relationships between free-living and parasitic cheyletids remain open to question. A morphological phylogenetic analysis of cheyletids by Bochkov & Fain (2001) did recover the parasitic forms as a clade but this result was questioned by the authors themselves. Instead, they suggested that the various parasitic tribes of Cheyletidae represented independent lineages whose shared features represented convergent adaptations to the parasitic lifestyle. The Ornithocheyletiini might, for instance, be compared to tribes such as the Cheletosomatini that inhabit the quills of bird feathers but feed on other quill-inhabiting mites rather than the birds themselves. Did ornithocheyletiins evolve from using birds as hunting grounds to using birds as food, or did they carry their parasitic habits with them from some other host?


Bochkov, A. V., & A. Fain. 2001. Phylogeny and system of the Cheyletidae (Acari: Prostigmata) with special reference to their host-parasite associations. Bulletin de l’Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique, Entomologie 71: 5–36.


  1. Does anything eat ornithocheyletiins?

    1. Not that I'm aware of. I'm not aware off the top of my head of any 'grooming' mutualisms with birds as the groomed partner (with the possible exception of anting); if those exist, they would probably be the best chance for such parasites to be cleared.


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