The winter solstice (adorned with a full lunar eclipse on an almost clear night here in Edmonton) is several days past and my brief Albertan ‘mid-winter’ holiday season has just commenced. In Australia the first month of summer is almost over – Australia begins its summer on the first day of December, presumably out of the usual nonconformity or some other reason that was never clearly explained to me – but their summer solstice is just past and it is also the holiday season (with snow in the mountains, but otherwise warmer than here). Celebrating the longest night of the year makes a certain sense. Although I still have 4-5 months before green returns to the landscape, I can optimistically assume that the sun will be shining longer and longer each day, even if it is on clouds that are dumping snow on me, and eventually the winter will end, at least officially. So, in the spirit of my holiday season, I wish my readers, wherever they are and whatever their holiday or not, a happy Christmas and productive, healthy, and intellectually stimulating New Year.
Over the last few years I have gotten into the habit of tarting up one of my mites for a Christmas card. This year I picked an unidentified Albertan species of Homocaligus – one of the two genera of the raphignathoid family Homocaligidae. This mite is a festive bright red in life and skates over the shallow margins of lakes among emergent vegetation and aquatic mosses. Eggs are probably laid on vegetation as in Annerossella knorri Gonzalez, a homocaligid described from the leaves of water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) near Bangkok, Thailand. I suspect it is a predator, perhaps of the springtails (Podura aquatica) that hop along in this habitat. I once kept an undescribed Australian species of Annerossella in a small aquarium, but other than watching it skate across the water, I was unable to add anything to the knowledge of its ecology (at about 0.5 mm in length, it is difficult to observe). However, I did make one of my early coloured SEMs of the mite and posted it on the Mite Image Gallery at the University of Queensland. Much to my surprise this was the first record of the family in Australia and my friend Bruce Halliday, putting aside his doubts about the validity of ephemeral web publications, cited the image in his Mites of Australia, a checklist and bibliography (1998, CSIRO Publications). Interestingly, the image at the top of a species of Homocaligus is probably the first record of the family from Alberta.
Although festive enough for the holiday in itself, I thought the Homocaligus needed more adornment. The pine cone-like bulbs on the mite are cerotegumental pustules from another mysterious Albertan mite, Roynortonella gildersleeveae (Hammer, 1952). This mite used to reside in the genus Nortonella Paschoal, named after the great oribatologist Roy A. Norton. Unfortunately, in 1908 a certain Rohwer had already used Nortonella for a genus of tenthridinid sawflies; thus, the name was preoccupied. I suggested the new name as a replacement that was in keeping with the author’s original intentions. Like other members of its family (Gymnodamaeidae), the surface of the adult mite has scattered fields of strange and intriguing Bucky Ball-like pustules. The pustules arise as the cerotegument dries after the adult moult in what must be some interaction between microfibers and wax. Their elaborate form and species-to-species variants keep me, if not tied to a particular belief in the nature of the Universe, at least still amazed by how rewarding the study of even the smallest parts of Nature can be.
For more on Homocaligidae and Gymnodamaeidae see:
Fan Q-H. 1997. The Homocaligidae from China, with description of two new species (Acari: Raphignathoidea). Entomol. Sin. 4: 337-342.
Gonzalez RH. 1978. a new species of mite on water lettuce in Thailand (Acari: Homocaligidae). International Journal of Acarology 4:221-225.
Walter DE. 2009. Genera of Gymnodamaeidae (Acari: Oribatida: Plateremaeoidea) of Canada, with notes on some nomenclatorial problems. Zootaxa 2206: 23–44.
Wood TG. 1969. The Homocaligidae a new family of mites (Acari: Raphignathoidea), including a description of a new species from Malaya and the British Solomon Islands. Acarologia (Paris): 11: 711-729.