Field of Science

The Microzetid Enigma

The armoured mites of the Oribatida include their fair share of ornately ornamented species but perhaps the most grotesque of all are to be found under members of the family Microzetidae. These typically fairly small oribatids (the average size is about a third of a millimetre) are primarily found in soil and litter deposits around the world. They include a handful of species found in the far north but are primarily found in warmer regions with the greatest known diversity in the Neotropics (Woas 2002).

Dorsal, ventral and lateral views of Acaroceras galapagoensis, from Heinrich Schatz & Jose Palacios-Vargas.

The microzetids are primarily distinguished by elaborate outgrowths of the cuticle around the front of the body. In many oribatids, a pair of thin lamellae run down either side of the prodorsum (the part of a mite that might at first glance be taken for the 'head'). In microzetids, these lamellae have become massively enlarged and detached from the prodorsum over much of their length. As a result, they form a kind of hood over the front of the body. They are flanked on either side by similar lateral extensions called tutoria. The prodorsum as a whole is often remarkably large compared to the rear part of the dorsum, the notogaster. Indeed, the notogaster is often as wide as or wider than it is long. A pair of wing-like extensions, pteromorphs, extend on either side of the front of the notogaster; in microzetids, the pteromorphs are typically sharply pointed. To top all these excrescences off, the insertions of the first pair of legs are also shielded by well-developed flanges called pedotecta.

What, if anything, is the purpose of all these anatomical extravagances is a question I am unable to answer: whether they are related in some way to defense or water retention, for instance. They also make it difficult to understand the position of microzetids relative to other oribatids. The presence of pteromorphs has commonly been thought characteristic of a group of oribatids that have been referred to as the Poronoticae. However, microzetids lack any sign of another distinctive feature of poronotic oribatids: the array of glandular openings on the cuticle known as the octotaxic system. Some oribatids are known to have reduced octotaxic systems, and microzetids do bear a certain resemblance to a definitely poronotic family in the Oribatellidae, so it is possible they represent poronotic mites in which the octotaxic system has been lost. However, other features of microzetids further support affinities outside the Poronoticae. In particular, nymphs of microzetids carry scalps. As they moult from one instar to the next, the shed cuticle of the notogaster is retained in place like a cap. Over successive instars, this cap becomes a stack of scalps that potentially assist in defence (a would-be predator attempting to grab onto the notogaster finds itself holding only an empty scalp). This is generally thought to be a primitive bahaviour that was lost in the ancestor of the poronotics. So are the microzetids primitive relatives of the poronotics, descended from ancestors that had acquired pteromorphs but not yet lost the scalp-carrying habit? Are they derived poronotics that eschewed the octotaxic system and taken up their scalps once more? Further research into oribatid phylogeny is needed to know.


Woas, S. 2002. Acari: Oribatida. In: Adis, J. (ed.) Amazonian Arachnida and Myriapoda: Identification keys to all classes, orders, families, some genera, and lists of known terrestrial species pp. 21–291. Pensoft: Sofia.

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