Anystis offered a challenging etymological quest (see previous post) but sometimes a spade is just called a spade. I came to the UNAM Chamela field station in Jalisco, Mexico, to hunt for a mite whose lifestyle is mysterious but whose name is straightforward. Mites of the suborder Opilioacarida were once thought to be the most ancient lineage of Acari because they bear remnants of abdominal segmentation and have a strange combination of morphological features of the two main groups mites, the Parasitiformes and the Acariformes, suggesting that opilioacarids may have arisen prior to the split between these two lineages. However, molecular data don’t support this story, as they place Opilioacarida firmly in the Parasitiformes, and the Acariformes way the heck far off in another part of the arachnid phylogeny (i.e., mites appear to be diphyletic).
Nevertheless, opilioacarids remain very odd parasitiforms, with their big eyes, soft bodies, and gut contents that include particles (most other parasitiforms are blind, crunchy, fluid-feeders). Their semi-segmented opisthosomas and long gangly legs make them look like a cross between a daddy-longlegs (Opiliones) and mites, hence their name. We don’t know how they catch their food or how they have sex. My mission in coming to Chamela is to collect live opilioacarids and watch them eat and (fingers crossed) transfer sperm. But after a week here, I hadn’t even managed to extract a single specimen from the soil, litter, wood and bark that I’ve been putting through my Tullgren funnels. Until today – I extracted three lovely Neocarus from an unprepossessing habitat consisting of dry soil, scattered small rocks, and crispy leaf litter. Unfortunately, these three are dead, having fallen into the ethanol at the bottom of the funnels, and hence will not be useful subjects for behavioural observations. But at least I now know they’re here.