Smaller fleas

In his very long poem on the nature of poets, Jonathan Swift famously noted that parasites can themselves be parasitzed. A few weeks ago I came across an interesting case of hyperparasitism. I had washed a recently road-killed Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It yielded many lovely mites and one feather louse. I slide-mounted the latter and representatives of the former.

Pteronyssus sphyrapicinus male and female ex YPSS HP0929 sml

Pteronyssus sphyrapicinus (Astigmata: Pteronyssidae) feather mites from a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Male on left, female on right.

When I looked at the louse under the compound scope I thought its Malpighian tubules had burst out of its abdomen. At higher magnification, the tubules turned out to be hyphae.

Penenirmus auritus with arrows

Fungally infected Penenirmus auritus (Phthiraptera: Philopteridae) from a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

I figured it must be a member of the Laboulbeniales, fascinating and highly modified ascomycotan fungi: look here and here! Almost all of the 2000 or so described species are ectoparasites – or perhaps in some cases harmless commensals – of living arthropods. One species has achieved recent notoriety due to its spreading from a native ladybird in the U.K. to an invasive one. I had seen them on various critters before, including beetles and mites, though never on a feather louse. But Googling revealed that in 1951, Wolfdietrich Eichler had published an interesting overview of the Laboulbeniales he’d seen on lice from birds*.Eichler figure

They were all from the genus Trenomyces. I asked my mycologist friend Randy Currah if he could tell whether the fungus on my louse was one that Eichler had identified. He referred me to Meredith Blackwell at Louisiana State University. She identified the images as a Trenomyces sp. (like Eickler’s) and then sent the images I emailed to her to Danny Haelewaters at Harvard University. I’m not sure whether Danny will be able to get it to species based on my bad photos, but if he does I will update. UPDATE (22 Aug 2015) – Danny has just identified the fungus as Trenomyces circinans Thaxter, a new record for Canada. Thanks, Danny!

Penenirmus auritus from YBSS trimmed

Closer view of the Trenomyces showing a big ascocarp, two ascospores (lower right) and juvenile multiseptate things that probably have proper names but I will just call ‘babies’.

*Eichler, W. 1951. Laboulbeniales bei Mallophagen und Läusen. Feddes Repertorium. 54(53):185-206.


On the backs of wasps

In March, I was given two specimens of solitary wasps that were covered with mites. The first was one of several Crossocerus  (Crabronidae) that had overwintered in holes in a wooden chair left outside on the campus of the University of Alberta. I had expected the mites to be phoretic deutonymphal astigmatans, but they weren’t, they were adult female scutacarids (Prostigmata: Scutacaridae). Many scutacarid species have phoretic and non-phoretic morphs. The big anterior tarsal claws you can see (blurrily) on the photo below are typical for phoretomorphs. What wasn’t typical was a pair of strange internal structures that became apparent in well-cleared specimens.

scutacarid from Crossocerus April 2015 E

At first I thought the pair of round things near the female’s genital area were sperm-storage chambers. But when I Googled ‘Crossocerus’ and ‘Scutacaridae’, I found a paper that showed I was only half right – they were sporothecae*, not spermathecae!

scutacarid from Crossocerus April 2015 C

Two big spores tucked into the genital atrium of this female Imparipes.

scutacarid from Crossocerus April 2015 A

Ebermann & Hall (2004) described a new species of scutacarid, Imparipes haeseleri, from several species of wood-associated Hymenoptera. In the genital atrium of these mites, they observed two large round fungal spores, one on each side, looking remarkably similar to the ones in the mites from the rotting chair. I asked Evert Lindquist, an expert on the Heterostigmata (the larger group to which Scutacaridae belongs) if these mites were Imparipes. Yup, they were. Were they I. haeseleri? There is a closely related species known from North America, I. vulgaris, but several setal characters matched haeseleri rather than vulgaris so I decided to go with Imparipes cf. haeseleri.

Why are the female mites carrying spores? No doubt they and their offspring feed on the wood-digesting mycelium produced from the germinated spores. The mites that hop on wasps as they depart from their overwintering chambers take with them the starter culture for their future meals. Dr. Lindquist noted that the spores these mites were carrying looked very similar to the Nigrospora spores known to be carried by a different species of heterostigmatan, Siteroptes reniformis Krantz. In his 1984 paper, Lindquist notes that S. reniformis “not only serve to transport and place spores of Nigrospora in an environment favorable for germination and growth, they also stimulate mycelial growth, apparently by secreting a chemical substance when feeding on the fungus.”

The second wasp was collected from an overwintered artificial nesting block that was supposed to house solitary bees. It was an Ancistrocerus sp. (Vespidae: Eumeninae). Knowing this, it was easy to guess who the mites were, and slide-mounting confirmed it: deutonymphs of a Kennethiella sp. (Astigmata: Winterschmidtiidae).


Like almost all phoretic deutonymphs of Astigmata, these Kennethiella have a terminal sucker plate to adhere to hosts. Unusually, they also have anterior ocelli. Why ocelli are present in only a small number of Astigmata is unclear (at least, it’s unclear to me).


Sucker plate.

Winterschmidtiid ocelli

Pair of ocelli.

The reason I expected the mites to be Kennethiella is because the relationship between them and their host wasps is famous among acarologists. Cowan (1984) unraveled the interactions for one mite-wasp duo.  To quote the abstract: “The mite Kennethiella trisetosa is phoretic on adults of the wasp Ancistrocerus antilope and develops in the nest with immature wasps. Female mites and a large type of male develop oviparously, whereas a small male develops oviparously. Small males kill each other, but are ignored by large males. By mating with females before small males are mature, large males may monopolize fertilization. Larvae of female wasps usually destroy mites within their cells but, as adults, are reinfested when mated by mite-bearing males. Each time a male wasp mates, about half of its mites transfer to the female.”

It’s worth reading the original to appreciate the full intricacies of these intertwined life-cycles.

Ancistrocerus showing Kennethiella mites 16 Aug 2009

A home-grown Ancistrocerus with a load of Kennethiella, from my back yard in Edmonton a few years ago.

*according to Evert Lindquist, they aren’t sporothecae (which are spore-storage sacs) but simply the spores themselves, tucked into corners of the genital atrium. Thanks, Evert!