In biodiversity research, knowledge of species numbers is the basis for planning environmental protection and climate research. However, the taxonomic work is made more difficult by cryptic species complexes in the world of organisms. Careless determinations of similar species must be prevented. For a beter understanding, examples from different animal groups are given. Using two species complexes of the mite taxon Histiostomatidae (Astigmata), two different forms of cryptic species complexes are presented in detail. Based on three species from a group associated with bark beetles, an example of a species complex is presented in detail, in which all stages of development look confusingly similar to one another. On the other hand, four species of mites from the bank mud of standing waters can only be confused with one another on the basis of their phoretic dispersal stage (deutonymph), while the adults differ distinctly. The meaning of such species complexes is discussed in the evolutionary and applied context. It is critically pointed out that too few specialists are funded worldwide and few taxonomists have to work too quickly, so that there is a risk of cryptic groups of species not being taken into account in surveys.
Biodiversity research is an essential fundament for disciplines like climate research and climate changes and thus contributes to an understanding about, how we humans need to treat our own environments. A main aspect of biodiversity research besides species monitoring is the evaluation of how many species we have. Specialists need to recognize and scientifically describe new species, especially, when it for example comes out that a complex of very similiar species contains more species than expected before (e.g. Laska et al. 2018). In tendency researchers in the field of biodiversity focus most on vertebrates in temperate regions and generally less in invertebrates (Titley et al. (2017).
The number of recently existing species in numerous cases is still unknown, especially in taxa of small organisms, such as mites. Due to a lack of specialists and due to a lack of fundamental research fundings, relatively much is known about direct pests of human sources, such as Varroa or Tetranychidae mites. But within the major clade Acariformes, ecological contexts and numbers and distribution of species of some free living taxa of Prostigmata and Oribatida/Astigmata are still an open field, even in Central Europe, e. g. Germany (Wirth, 2004).
This is despite the fact that for example phoretic mites, which use other arthropods as carriers for dispersal, can have highly complex relationships with their phoretic hosts, thus being of interest from the evolutionary, the ecological and even an applied point of view. The latter is discussed for example in context with different bark beetles, which their mites might affect by acting as vectors for fungus spores (Klimov & Khaustov, 2018).
Cryptic species complexes are a topic that is currently being widely dealt with in science. Such species complexes are characterized by the fact that they are difficult or impossible to distinguish morphologically. However, they can be clearly differentiated from one another using barcoding (e.g. Kameda et al, 2007), behavioral or ecological studies. Crossing experiments are a frequently used ecological method. Because according to the biological species concept, individuals of different species either cannot be crossed with one another or the offspring of such a hybridization is not fertile (e.g. Sudhaus & Kiontke, 2007).
Crossing experiments are particularly suitable for the investigation of cryptic species complexes in species that have a rapid life cycle and, due to their small size, can be accommodated well in standardized conditions. Such organisms are, for example, free-living nematodes of the Rhabditidae (e. g. Sudhaus & Kiontke, 2007) or mites of the Histiostomatidae (e.g. Wirth, 2004).
The cryptospecies phenomenon, which means that closer investigations show that animals once attributed to the same species actually represent several species, can in principle occur in the entire animal kingdom and in plants and fungi too (Shneyer & Kotseruba, 2015). Previously known subspecies are often given their own species status as a result. One example are the two monitor lizard species Varanus niloticus and V. ornatus (e. g. Böhme & Ziegler, 2004).
In this monitor lizard research mainly ecological differences to V. niloticus have been studied. As one of the results, V. ornatus does not have a diapause in summer, which is a distinct difference to V. niloticus (Böhme & Ziegler, 2004). As an unusual phenomenon, a case of parthenogenesis was even observed in V. ornatus, but not in V. niloticus (Hennessy, 2010) so far. However, morphological differences between these two monitor lizards were known even before, for example relating to aspects of the dorsal drawing. But the authors named above were able to provide evidence that these morphological differences do not occur gradually, as orgininally assumed, but rather distinctly.
Another example of two sibling species (the most simple form of cryptic groups) that have been identified as different species by molecular biological studies are Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalensis (e.g. Prüfer et al., 2014). Originally it was assumed that H. neanderthalensis was a subspecies of H. sapiens. This is for example supported by the proven cultural exchange between the two species and the great morphological similarity. In the meantime, however, morphological findings such as the morphology of the nasal duct of the Neanderthal man have also supported the genetic findings (Márquez et al., 2014). However, very recent studies show that Neanderthal genetics have entered the lines of H. sapiens (Hajdinjak er al., 2021). As a result, both forms have crossed and produced fertile offspring. It remains to be seen whether this will possibly dismiss the concept of two species again.
Since the aim of all studies of cryptic species complexes is to find distinctive differences in the areas of morphology, ecology or barcoding (or all approaches together) that distinguish one species from all others, ultimately clearly definable, very closely related species remain in case of successful studies.
If the cryptic organisms are members of an organism-socialization, such as parasites and their hosts, the idea that a proven host specificity can be an indicator for a certain species of a cryptic complex is obvious. In fact, Wirth et al. (2016) for example postulated a host specificity for the phoretic mite Histiostoma piceae and its hosts, the bark beetles Ips typographus and I. cembrae. Nevertheless, relationships between associated species are usually not studied extensively enough to be able to unequivocally identify certain species on the basis of for example their hosts (Wirth, 2004).
Since cryptic species represent nevertheless separate species despite their extraordinary similarity, they are subject to the species concepts. As a result, they form different niches and can therefore appear sympatric in the same living space (e. g. McBride et al., 2009). This makes it difficult for biodiversity researchers and systematics to investigate the real numbers of species in such habitats.
If, instead, cryptic species are not sympatric, but distributed in adjacent areas, this can for example indicate that an allopatric species formation has either not been completed for a long time or is even still in the process of speciation (e. g. Gollmann, 1984).
Animal species that have different developmental stages can appear cryptic, i.e. being morphologically confusingly similar, with regard to all these developmental stages, such as for example certain phoretic free-living nematodes, which then additionally have to be studied ecologically or genetically (e. g. Derycke et al. 2008).
Other species can hardly be distinguished morphologically with regard to a certain developmental stage, which is particularly common, but differ distinctly in other developmental stages, which are more difficult to find. Very similar looking lepidopteran caterpillars of sibling species (e. g. Scheffers et al. 2012) can be more commonly available than their adults, which might be easier to distinguish.
As a specialist for mites of the family Histiostomatidae (Astigmata, Acariformes) I will in my further argumentation refer to my biodiversity studies on these mites and explain the difficult situation for describers of new species based on several specific histiostomatid species, some being phoretically associated with bark beetles and others associated with different coleopterans from muddy sapropel-habitats around ponds in Berlin/Germany. In connection with these cryptic groups of species, reference should be made to the applied difficulties in connection with biodiversity research. I am referring to the fact that, for a variety of reasons, often only a certain juvenile stage (deutonymph) is used for species descriptions (e. g. Klimov & Khaustov, 2018 B), although cryptic species can occur sympatricly in the same habitat and in many cases not be sufficiently differentiated from one another on the basis of just this one stage.
In Histiostomatidae as in most Astigmata taxa, the deutonymph (in older publications hypopus) represents the phoront, being adapted morphologically and behaviorally in getting dispersed by insects or other arthropods. This instar has no functional mouth, possesses a ventral suckerplate to attach to its carriers and a thicker sclerotization against dehydration. The deutonymph is often collected together with its phoretic host. Bark beetle traps are for example a common source, where dead deutonymphs still on their hosts come from and are subsequently forwarded to acarologists, who then are of course unable to create a mite culture in order to have also adult instars available for species descriptions (e. g. Klimov & Khaustov, 2018 B) and other taxonomic purposes. This paper shall clarify, why it is instead necessary for a clear species determination to have the deutonymph and additionally at least adults available.
In this publication two cryptic species complexes from the taxon Histiostomatidae (Astigmata) are presented as result of my original scientific work. On the one hand morphologically very similar representatives of the Histiostoma piceae-group, which are originally associated with bark beetles (Scolytinae), on the other hand similar looking representatives, which are bound to insects in the area of the banks of ponds with digested sludge (sapropel). It needs to be emphasized in that context that those herewith introduced two cryptic clades are phylogenetically not closer related to each other.
The presented bark beetle mites (chapter 1 in results) can only be distinguished morphologically by very gradual characteristics, in terms of phoretic deutonymphs as well as in terms of adults. However, there is a tendency towards host specificity (e.g. Scheucher, 1957), which is why there could be a permanent spatial separation of the species despite common occurrence in the same region.
The mites from the sapropel in the area of the pond banks (chapter 2 in results) are presented on the basis of a certain area in Berlin (Germany), where they appeared sympatric. Unlike the bark beetle mites, they are morphologically clearly distinguishable with regard to the adults, but have morphologically very similar deutonymphs, which essentially only differ from one another in degrees.
Based on the representatives of two different cryptic species groups presented in this work, it should be shown that a sufficient range of morphological features for systematic and taxonomic differentiation and characterization of species can only be available if at least two developmental stages of a population can be studied. It is also pointed out that high-resolution optical methods can uncover a possibly systematically relevant variety of morphological features that would otherwise remain hidden. It is suggested that a suspected host specificity cannot always be used to differentiate between very similar species and that cryptic species can be found sympatricly on the same host as well as in the same habitat. The main aim is to show that there is a risk of confusion and a risk of underestimating the existing biodiversity if only the deutonymph is used for taxonomic purposes, just because it is for example easily available, when the host is captured. Nevertheless species descriptions based only on the deutonymphs are unfortunately still surprisingly common.
Due to the lack of sufficient research fundings and a corresponding decrease of experienced specialists, trends to remarkably simplify determinations and species descriptions are about to manifest themselves. Non specialists or less experienced acarologists increasingly try to recognize or describe new species based on the availability of deutonymphs only, because these phoronts are often easily accessible as bycatch of entomological material. It is mistakenly assumed that faster procedures could accelerate the level of scientific knowledge about the biodiversity of astigmatid mites (Wirth, 2004).
Material and Methods
Chapter 1 is an illustration of the current state of my research about a cryptic bark beetle-associated group of species. Problems and questions are additionally shown both on the basis of existing, in part own, literature. Chapter 2 is about four species of Histiostomatidae that were recorded from an old gavelpit area in the urban Berlin forest Grunewald, named „Im Jagen 86“, located 52° 29′ N, 13° 14′ E. This chapter focuses specifically on Histiostoma maritimum, collected between 2002 and 2012 (and also between 1999 and 2000 during my diploma thesis). Besides H. maritimum three other species were found in the same area and habitat: Histiostoma palustre, collected once via deutonymphs from a beetle of Genus Cercyon in 2002 and reared in culture over about two years on moist decomposing potato pieces, Histiostoma litorale, isolated as adults from sapropel mud once in 2002 and Histiostoma n. sp., reared only one generation long from adults to adults in 2019, inside sapropel-mud samples with moss growth and moist decomposing potato pieces.
Mites of H. maritimum were collected as deutonymphs on the beetles Heterocerus fenestratus (rarer on Heterocerus fusculus) and Elaphrus cupreus from sapropel around two ponds in the named area. After different experiments, mites developed successfully on beetle cadavers on 1.5 % water agar in Petri dishes (diameter 5 cm) at room temperature (ca 20°C, summer 2002). Three cultures (one cadaver of C. elaphrus and twice each time two cadavers of H. fenestratus) were observed over a period of about three weeks (additionally small pieces of beef heart were added to all these cultures to maintain suitable food sources). Adult mites were stored in 80 % ethanol for about 5 days and then critical point dried for SEM studies. Photos were taken by an analogous medium size camera via a Philips SEM 515 and later developed. Still unpublished copies from 2002 were scanned in a high 600 dpi solution and as tiffs via a CanoScan Lide 2010 in 2021. Restauration and picture quality improvement were performed via Adobe Lightroom. The areal panorama of the former multiple pond area was captured in September 2018 via a Dji Mavic Pro drone at a height between 30 and 50 m and subsequently modified into black and white.
Setal nomenclature follows Griffiths et al. (1990).
The mite Histiostoma piceae Scheucher, 1957 is a member of the mite family Histiostomatidae (Astigmata, Acariformes). Scheucher discovered the mite based on all instars from spruce, infected by the bark beetle Ips typographus. She collected her samples in Regensburg, Höbing (bei Roth) and Harz. Scheucher reared her specimens on potatoes and bran, but describes that her cultures did grow well only to some degree.
According to her findings, phoretic carrier (hosts) is the bark beetle species Ips typographus, she also found deutonymphs rarely on some staphylinids. She discovered that free living non-deutonymphal stages develop on fresh detritus, while deutonymphs appear only on old detritus („after it was for a longer time removed from the trees“, „wenn der Mulm einige Zeit aus den Bäumen entfernt ist“). I could like Scheucher culture the mites on potato, but a bit better in their original gallery substrate. Under laboratory conditions, they indeed did not rear very well in both kinds of cultures.
I collected H. piceae between 2000 and 2004 once from a wooden log infested by I. typographus in Berlin, then got access to microscopic slides from Europe in the collection of John C. Moser (Louisiana, USA) in 2007 and 2009, then I collected samples from Ips typographus and I. cembrae in Central Croatia (publication Wirth, Weis and Pernek, 2016) and found out that H. piceae is not restricted to I. typographus, but also to its sibling species I. cembrae. I finally collected the mite from I. typographus galleries between 2015 and 2016 in Western-Siberia near the city Tyumen.
I repeatedly observed deutonymphs of H. piceae under natural conditions (bark samples directly after the excursions) to develop in very high numbers, then attaching to all available arthropods nearby, smaller bark beetle species and numerous bigger mites of different groups, such as for example oribatids.
Published recordings of H. piceae from other bark beetles than I. typographus and I. cembrae are doubtful and need to be named Histiostoma cf. piceae. In some cases with I. typographus additionally present, I interpret the mites to have switched from their regular carrier (host) to an adjacent gallery of e.g. another smaller bark beetle species. In other cases, the existence of similar looking species new to science needs to be tested. In cases of determinations by non specialists from bark beetles other than the above mentioned two beetle species, it needs to be assumed that these people could not differ between similar mite species, such as Histiostoma trichophorum Oudemans, 1912, Histiostoma ulmi Scheucher, 1957 or Histiostoma crypturgi Scheucher, 1957.
I never before published the full set of SEM and light microscopic photos from these times (except of my article about host specificity). In this explicite photo publication here on my homepage, I herewith publish SEM-photographs, objects sputtered with gold, which might be not unique to science, but very rare.
Any subsequent research on this mite in Europe is not happening (a few not too relevant findings are published by a former Russian colleague). Reason is that modern science does not understand, especially not in Germany, that fundamental research in applied fields is worth to be funded. It is for example known that deutonymphs of different mite species on bark beetles regularly carry fungus spores (different fungus species, just sticking on the mite’s cuticle), discovered by John C. Moser and confirmed by several of my own publications. This phenomenon is still not closer studied. Fungus transport into bark beetle galleries can influence the micro climate there.
Male and female of Histiostoma piceae, A venter of male, B dorsum of male, C mouthparts with Digitus fixus, D dorsum of female, E side-frontal view to female; Berlin 2002-2020, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
Deutonymph of Histiostoma piceae in ventral view, collected in Western Siberia, 2015 – 2016, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
Systematics: Histiostoma piceae is according to my phd thesis from 2004 and according to my more recent research findings a member of a clade (monophylum) within Histiostomatidae with most species associated with bark beetles (Scolytinae) or other bark inhabiting coleopterans; these phylogenetic findings are based on morphological characters.
The mite Histiostoma maritimum Oudemans 1914 is a member of the mite family Histiostomatidae (Astigmata, Acariformes). Oudemans discovered the mite based on its deutonymph only from a Dutch island. The German acarologist R. Scheucher found the species in 1957 in mud at the riverside of Regnitz and for the first time could rear H. maritimum and was able to redescribe it by its adult stages, especially females look morphologically conspicuous due to a sclerotized cuticula shield around its copulation opening. She reared her specimens on potatoes, mud and bran, but describes that her cultures did not grow well.
Phoretic carrieres (hosts) are beetles of genus Heterocerus, some carabids and according her findings also rarely some staphylinids.
I discovered H. maritimum between 2000 and 2004 repeatedly in sapropel around ponds in an old gravel pit area in Berlin, forest Grunewald, named „im Jagen 86“. They were mainly attached to the beetles Heterocerus fenestratus and Heterocerus fusculus, but could regularly also be found on the carabids Elaphrus cupreus and Bembidion sp.. I could several times rear the mites, like Scheucher almost unsuccessfully on potatoes, but well on cadavers of their carriers. I thus reconstructed a so called necromenic life-strategy for H. maritium. This means that a phoretic stage ascends a carrier, but never leaves, instead it awaits the carrier’s natural dead to develop on its cadaver (published in my phd thesis, online, 2004).
I will not publish my full set of SEM photos from earlier times here. Some photos will be saved for one of my upcoming paper submissions in scientific and peer-reviewed journals. In this photo publication here on my homepage, I at least publish some interesting SEM-photographs, based on objects sputtered with gold and a subsequent critical-point-drying procedure.
Adults of Histiostoma maritimum: A left male, right female, B, C, copulation opening, D dorsal view to female with mouthparts and copulation opening
Systematics: H. maritimum shares morphological characters of deutonymph (setation, apodemes) and adults (mouthpart details, shape of Digitus fixus) with species like Histiostoma feroniarum, H. insulare, H. litorale, H. palustre, H. polypori, H. myrmicarum. This might indicate a separate clade, but according to the old findings in my phd thesis, also a paraphyletic grouping including these species is thinkable.
Mites represent arachnids, which means that they share characters with much bigger organisms, such as spiders, skorpions or harvestmen. Their bodies consist of specialized bundles of segments, named tagmata. Two major tagmata are differed from each other in arachnids: prosoma, including legs and mouthparts, and opisthosoma, including for example the digestive and the reproductive systems.
Discussed diphyletic origin of mites
Mites are according to some acarological scientists eventually not longer just mites. The former two clades of mites, Parasitiformes and Acariformes, originally considered as sister taxa, were in some modern systematics reconstructed to be diphyletic. That would mean, there was no commor ancestor, from which only those two clades derived, the two major clades would be polyphyletic with no close relationship between them, each clade is assumed being closely related to different groups of arachnids (e.g. Psedoscorpions and Opiliones). Thus, when I talk about mites, I am talking about the clade Acariformes.
Mites of the Acariformes and body plan
In these Acariformes mites, the arachnid body construction plan was modified into three visible tagmata: gnathosoma (bearing chelicerae and pedipalps as mouthparts), proterosoma (bearing first two leg pairs) and hysterosoma (bearing last two leg pairs and opisthosoma organs).
Male (large morph) of mite Histiostoma feroniarum in dorsal view. Body division in gnathosoma, proterosoma and hysterostoma. Fixation : critical-point-dried, SEM photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
Let’s talk about mouthparts, as they are an important aspect of my systematic and my function.morphological studies. Originally the gnathosoma consists of a pair of scissor-shaped chelicerae to grasp the food particles and of a pair of leg-shaped pedipalps, which mostly have mechano-sensitive and chemo-sensitive functions. But because mites colonized almost all kinds of existing habitats on earth, they extensively were exposed to the mechanisms of evolution. Acariform mites show a high range of variability regarding their morphology and their life strategies.
Mouthparts of Sarcoptiformes
Within the clade Sarcoptiformes, consisting of oribatid mites, Endeostigmata (seemingly paraphyletic) and astigmatid mites, there evolved a tendency towards miniaturization. Mites of the Astigmata are usually much smaller than one mm. Correspondingly the cuticle became thinner and softer, perfect adaptations to a life inside very tiny micro habitats, but at the same time also a limitation, namely towards more or less moist habitats due to the lack of a well developed desiccation protection. They appear inside compost, rotting wood or mammal dung, being even there very specifically adapted into very defined micro climatic conditions. They live in a world of complete darkness, which is why light sensory organs are completely lost or reduced to vestigial structures.
Inside their habitats, astigmatid mites need to reproduce, to develop through different nymphal stages until adulthood and of course to feed. Astigmata are no fluid suckers, but feed on particles, such as bacteria, algae, fungi, thus many Astigmata taxa can be named microorganism feeders.
Life-strategy of mites of the (family) Histiostomatidae
Extinct bark beetle fpssil in amber (collection Hoffeins) with phoretic mite deutonymphs. Fixation with hexamethyldisilazane, stereomicroscopic photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
One of the largest family within the Astigmata clade is the Histiostomatidae, which I use since many years as model for my scientific studies. These mites are scientifically interesting from different points of view. Their ecology is characterized by life styles, which correspond to the life cycle of insects and other arthropods, to which most species have a close association. Most important aspect of these interactions between mites and other arthropods, commonly insects, is a dispersal strategy named „phoresy“. Mites use their „partners“ as carriers from one habitat to another. These habitats can often be the nests of the corresponding arthropods/ insects.
Habitats, in which mites of the Histiostomatidae develop successfully need to be moist and need to contain a sufficiant amount of microorganisms as food source. It is the most conspicuous feature of these mites to possess remarkably modified mouthparts compared to the above described standard equipment of an acariform gnathosoma.
Mouthparts of the Histiostomatidae
Mite Histiostoma sp. (sapropel around ponds, female, Berlin) feeding from a substrate surface inside its original habitat. Videography in 4K, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
The character conditions of the gnathosoma were one of the reasons, why I at the beginning of my phd thesis in 2000 decided to put my research focus on this mite family, being worldwide in major still unexplored.
The chelicera modified into a dagger-like structure being formed by the fixed part of the former scissor-like organ, named the digitus fixus. There is a variability of shapes of this digitus fius-chelicera-ending within the Histiostomatidae . It can appear „simple-dagger-like, simple formed with a hook-like ending or having cuticular dentations of specific numbers and sizes along the lower edge of the digitus fixus.
As typical for mites of the big clade Astigmata, the pedipalps are reduced in size and almost immovably ventrally and dorsally connected with each other. In Histiostomatidae, the third pedipalp article is additionally distinctly bent sidewards. Their front sides bear more or less complex arrangements of flexible membraneous structures, which can morphologically differ between taxa or even species, thus giving them a systematic relevance. I named these membrane-organs „palparmembrane“ following the nomenclature, introduced by R. Scheucher in 1957. These membranes can be devided into fringes or being lobe-sphaped and can cover the last pedipalp article dorsally and/or ventrally. My histological analysis from 2006 indicated that these membranes are shaped by the enditesof the pedipalpal coxae.
Complex mouthpart apparatus
Thus Histiostomatidae possess a bizarre mouthpart apparatus being unique within the Acariformes and representing an amount of characters, which from the phylogenetc point of view can be reconstructed to have evolved in the stem species of that family (so called apomorphies).
Mouthpart apparatus as multifunctional organ
Mite Histiostoma sp. (male left, female right) feeding from a substrate surface inside its original habitat. Fixation with hexamethyldisilazane, SEM photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
This gnathosoma is a multifunctional organ with the main function to select specific microorganism particles out of their liquid environments. When observing a histiostomatid mite with a sufficient high magnification walking along on a smooth water agar surface, on which bacteria and fungi growth was stimulated before, then occasionally trails can be seen around the walking mite, indicating that the gnathosoma was hold mostly leaned downwards towards the ground, pushing the microorganism cover along in front of the mite’s body. I interpreted this as an accumulation of food in order to gain more nutrients all at once. In my early papers, I described this as the typical feeding behavior of histiostomatid mites with the membraneous appendages acting like rubber sliders in the meantime. But as newer analyses showed is that such observations do not describe the full equipment of possible applications of the mite’s complex filter-feeding apparatus.
Membraneous structures create an underpressure to incorporate food
Mite Histiostoma ruehmi mouthpart endings with palparmembrane in ventral view. Fixation with hexamethyldisilazane, SEM photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
More recent experiments with a higher videographic resolution and more suitable light conditions than 10 years ago (through-light and up light or one of them depending on the setting) showed that the palpar membrane structures , which more or less surround the entire fore-part (anterior part) of the gnathosoma can act like suckers: When the mite presses its front end of the mouthparts to the underground, an underpressure can be formed based on these membraneous structures. This seemingly facilitates the incorporation of nutrients in that area.
Note from January 2020: In retrospect, I do not consider it sensible to superficially describe the feeding behavior using the palpar membrane at the edge. A precise videographic analysis of individual images exists and is currently being developed into a scientific paper.
Aspects of the histiostomatid feeding behavior, including using the membranous components at the anterior end of the mouthparts (pedipalps), can partly be seen in the video below.
Mite Histiostoma ruehmi and an undetermined species feeding from a smooth artificial substrate surface and performing an underpressure to incorporate food. Videography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
Mite Histiostoma cf feroniarum feeding in its original substrate, fixed with hexamethydisilazane, SEM
copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
Mite Bonomoia opuntiae feeding from the surface of a substrate mount inside its original habitat. Rounded particles might represent yeast bodies. Fixation with hexamethyldisilazane, SEM photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
In my early postdoc-years, still at the FU Berlin, I performed experiments in order to fix mite activities inside their original substrates by filling such a mite-substrate-setting up with 1,1,1,3,3,3-hexamethyldisilazane and warming the corresponding small experimental dish, until the chemical was vaporized. I then sputtered the conserved setting with gold and studied the details on it via scanning-electron-microscopy. Occasionally, mites were shrinkled or deformed after this procedure, but sometimes they stayed in shape and did seemingly still remain in their last activity positions. I several times could take SEM photos, showing that (well visible only in adult mites due to their size) mite specimens can insert their (distal) chelicerae-endings into bigger heaps of substrate (obviously full of nutrients) and use the entire laterally bent pedipalpal articles, including the connected palparmembranes, to lean it against the substrate surface, either to stabilize the chelicerae movents or even to support the incorporation of nutrients again by forming a slight underpressure, or both.
Mite species Bonomoia opuntiae
Early observations during times of my phd-thesis on the mite Bonomoia opuntiae could show that the mouthpart apparatus of this terrestrial/semiaquatic mite works well also under water or inside a watery juce of decomposing cactus pieces. There even a filter function comparable with a fishing net was hypothesised, but so far was never studied in detail. The very distinct fringes along the palparmembrane lobes in this mite species might support this theory. I also studied the semiaquatic mite Sarraceniopus nipponensis feeding inside watery environments (normally the digestive fluids of Sarracenia pitchers), again never focussing in detail in how excactly the feeding mechanism works.
A putatively new species
The herewith presented video shows behaviors of a female of the putative new species Histiostoma sp. , which I discovered in beginning of 2019 in sapropel around ponds inside an old gravel pit area in the Berlin forest Grunewald. The footage is presented in slow motion. The question was about how motile the whole gnathosoma apparatus in a histiostomatid species can be and what kinds of movements occured. As the settings, which I in early years of my mite studies used for videographic studies, were simplyfied and thus unnatural (smooth agar surfaces), I thought it being necessary and important to capture behaviors in a complexly sculptured habitat, namely surfaces of decomposing potato pieces (on which most histiostomatid species use to develop well).
It was visible, based on the specimens of my video of this species, that histiostomatid mites can be able to lift up their entire gnathosomas on a sometimes even higher position than the levels of the rest of their bodies. Additionally the gnathosoma can be turned to the right and to the left. Up and down as well as sideward movements of the whole feeding apparatus were often performed and represented obviously flexible reactions of the mite to the surface structure of the substrate and to the availability of suitable nutrients. In this context I was also interested in details of the movements of the chelicera tips themselves.
Chelicera endings (digitus fixus)
Although they can be used dagger-like and be accurately inserted into muddy substrate mounts, chelicera tips will also appear in a very fragile and seemingly careful way, when palpating the surface of the substrate underneath. Such chelicera movements are visible in the footage of this video, presented in slow motion (about 25 percent of original speed) and in a digital magnification. I interpret this visible fragility caution of the chelicerae as one option to discover suitable food sources. Other important organs perceive the mite’s environment chemically, modified setae, namely the so called solenidia, which might additionally recognize profitable microorganism sources.
Mite Histiostoma feroniarum feeding from substrate mounts inside its original habitat (A-F). Rounded particles might represent yeast bodies. D = distal chelicera endings (digitus fixus), holding food particles, fixation with hexamethyldisilazane, SEM photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
The city of Berlin geomorphologically consists of witnesses of the Weichselian glacier. The modern city itself and adjacent federal states represented end moraine areas with fluvio-glacial debris accumulations, even well visible today due to a very sandy soil composition and a corresponding vegetation, creating landscapes, which partly almost look like from around the Mediterranean Sea.
Sands carried by the glaciers towards their end positions remained in partly huge layers with a thickness of up to 20 meters or more.
Gravelpit zone and its history
Also the area of the old gravelpit zone, called „Sandgrube im Jagen 86“, in the Berlin forest Grunewald is located inside such an end moraine zone, which was represented by plates belonging to the geological Teltow-plateau. In the time period between 1966 and 1983, gravel was excavated for industrial purposes. After 1983 a part renaturation was supported by nature conservationists. In 1992 in total 13 hectares of the former gravelpit area were allocated as nature conservation areas.
Other parts of this unique landscape remained accessible for the public. They represent today popular places for leisure and experiences of nature. Especially the huge sand dune is a popular destination for families with children.
Aerial videography of the gravelpit area in January 2019, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth. Please like my video also on Youtube, in case you like it.
Gravelpit zone and its ecology and biodiversity
The whole area – nature protection and accessible zones – show a complex mosaic of different landscape types, offering numerous animal and plant species a well suitable refuge. Neglected grasslands and dry meadows are surrounded by sandy areas free of any vegetation („dunes“) and moist osier beds and wetlands with ponds. The wetlands represent breeding grounds for numerous amphids. Lizards such as the sand lizard Lacerta agilis and snakes such as the grass snake Natrix natrix can regularly be observed. Sandy habitats offer space and specific ecological conditions for a interstitial fauna, consisting for example of different bee and sand wasp species.
In total the area bears more than 300 ferns and flowering plants, 16 breeding bird species, 7 amphibian species and 188 butterfly species.
My own scientific mite research in the gravelpit area
I was performing scientific research in that gravel pit landscape during the work on my phd-thesis between 2000 and 2005. My interest was (and one of my interests is still) focussed on specific organisms living around the shoreline of ponds.
The whole area of the gravelpit landscape is a good example for ecological changes that happen naturally with the ongoing time or even being affected by climatic changes. Between 2005 and 2018, the landscape partly changed significantly. Neglected grasslands and dry meadows covered less space originally, and instead several smaller ponds existed and offered amphibs and wetland inhabiting insects additional habitats. But some of the ponds already years ago dried out permanently. Their remnants are now covered by extended dry grasslands.
In former times of my phd thesis and even today, my research interests focus and focussed on the mite fauna in and around the muddy shorelines of ponds inside this former gravelpit area. The ponds are mostly surrounded by sapropel, a seemingly black and brownish mud, which is colored that way due to the incorporation metal sulfides. These muddy areas develop due to biochemical modifications of organic material in the absence of oxygen. Different insects, especially beetles live on top of these waterside habitats or even inside. Carabids of genera Elaphrus or Bembidion represent predators, while heterocerid beetles of genus Heterocerus are substrate feeders, presumanly with a preference for diatoms. Also water beetles of Dytiscidae and Hydrophilidae inhabit these habitats.
The mites Histiostoma maritimum and Histiostoma palustre
I discovered some of these beetles as dispersal carriers for specific mites. The dispersal strategy to take a ride on bigger animals to become carried from one habitat to another is called phoresy. Mites of the Astigmata represent typical phoretic organisms. I am scientifically specialized in a specific family of the Astigmata, which is named Histiostomatidae, and I discovered the mite species Histiostoma maritimum Oudemans, 1914 on Heterocerus fenestratus and H. fusculus as well as on Bembidion and Elaphrus species insside and on top of these muddy zones. I was the first acarologist, who ever studied the biology of this mite species. I furthermore discovered another mite species that was completely new to the scientific knowledge, and thus I scientifically described it as Histiostoma palustre („palustris“ = „muddy“) in 2002.
This species deserves particularly mention due to an unusual biological phenomenon: populations show a so called male dimorphism (better diphenism). Besides males with a „normal“ morphology, morphologically modified males appear. Their second legs differ from the typical shape of a mite and are modified into clasping organs. The function of these conspicuous organs could so far only be interpreted in the context of male to male competition conflicts for a female. In such situations, I observed the organs being used as arms against other males, against such ones with and such ones without clasping organs.
Right modified leg of a male of Histiostoma palustre. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, 2002/ 2019
Modified leg of a H. palustre male in closed position. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin 2002/ 2019
Underside of a H. palustre male with modified leg. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth 2002/ 2019
Asymmetry: male of H. palustre with only the right leg modified. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth 2002/ 2019
Asymmetry: male of H. palustre with only the left leg modified. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth 2002/ 2019
Copulation of a Histiostoma palustre male with both-sided modified legs. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin 2002/ 2019
Details of a copulation with a modified male, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, 2002/2019