I am an amateur naturalist trying to identify everything living in my garden.
On a whim, I recently got out my trusty Baermann funnel (which sounds far more technical than it actually is, namely, a sieve for sieving tiny critters out of soil) and was pleased to discover a host of new-for-my-blog creatures in a handful of old grass clippings. One, a mite, is shown in Photo 1 (click on photo's to enlarge)
Readers of my blog will know I make some effort to research the species of any creature I find in my garden. In the case of my mite however, this turned out to be no small challenge. Before this posting I knew nothing about mites. As I discovered, there are at least three factors mitigating against the amateur seeking to identify one to species level.
Firstly, there is the obvious minute size of mites' physical features. Identification to species can depend on close examination of some minute gland on the body or joint in the jaw-parts ('chelicerae'). With only one specimen and the type of microscope equipment typically available to the amateur, such features can be a challenge to view. The professional may perhaps turn to an extensive university collection of carefully dissected and permanently mounted specimens or examine their find by electron microscope. Sadly however, I don't have a electron microscope in my garden shed (I'm open to donations!).
A second challenge is the sheer number of mite species. More than 45,000 (here) have been recorded and some sources estimate this may be only 5% of the number awaiting discovery. To make matters worse there seems to be a dearth of elementary texts or online keys in the area. A number of advanced texts are available (at suitably advanced cost!) but there seems to be little along the lines of a field guide aimed at the amateur (I'd be pleased to be corrected on this matter).
Attempting to work through academic journal papers and keys brings one to a third difficulty, namely the dense jargon that accompanies the study of mites (acarology). The amateur must wrestle with references to such arcane structures as pretarsal condylophores, filiform corniculae and Claperede's organs. To complicate matters still further, acaralogists refer to the hairs (setae) that decorate mites' bodies in code ('h1', 'pg3' etc.) and not only does there seem to be no simple online explanation of how this code works (anyone?) but there is more than one system in use amongst the professionals.
Thankfully however, there are some notable exceptions to the comments above. On his excellent web site David Walter Evans has put together a Glossary of Acarine Terms, indispensable for making sense of the jargon of acarology. For discussion of some current research topics in acarology and some superb images see Macromite's blog. My searches turned up very few online keys but notable exceptions are the one on David Evans' site above and the interactive key here on the site of the North American Bee-Associated Mites project.
It was the latter that enabled me to make some progress with my mite. I spent some time inputting various features into the key with limited success, but then noticed my mite had 'brush like arthropodrial processes on the chelicerae' (in English: a fringe of hairs on its pincer-like mouthparts). You can see these in photo 2. In the key above this immediately narrows things down from my mite being in any of 36 possible families, to it being in the single family macrochelidae. (As always my identifications come with a health warning - I'm happy for them to be corrected)
Unfortunately that is as far as the key takes me and from the webpages of Dr G.W. Krantz I learn there are still well over a hundred individual species in the macrochelidae family. The book to consult would appear to be A Review of the Macrochelidae of the British Isles by Hyatt and Emberson, but this is out of print and seems generally unavailable.
In the course of my searches I pleased to discover that I am not the only UK amateur taking an interest in the fauna beneath our feet. Over at Alan Hadly's splendid site he too is busy studying macrochelidae mites (together with a host of other critters).
I must end this posting here. My intention in writing my blog is to learn something of the natural history of the creatures I encounter. It may not have escaped the attention of the observant reader however, that in this article I have largely failed to say anything about the natural history of mites. I feel relaxed! With 44,999+ species potentially still at large in my garden, I suspect this will not be the last time I have an opportunity to study these tiny creatures...