Out of the box: A can of lice, good lice, naked middle thirds, and the hideous truth

Phthiracarus borealis (Trägårdh, 1910) = Louse + Mite + of the North

I’ve recently been looking at a bunch of ‘bug blogs’ and trying to assess them so I could make a statement about the health of bugbloggery for an upcoming symposium. One of the things that has struck me so far is that, although at the start the spirit may have been willing, the current blog is often weak. Many of the once interesting bug blogs that I have found seem to have run out of steam. If they haven’t posted in more than a year, I’ve been calling them ‘moribund’, but then I realised that here I haven’t posted since July. A quarter moribund? Well, I often feel even worse then that, so I guess I can’t complain if I am being quarter-hoisted by my own petard.

Mesotritia nuda (Berlese, 1887) = Middle + third + naked

So, here’s a mini-post, mostly just to keep from sliding into moribunditry, but also to try and work out one of those arcane problems that keeps me up at night – devising common names for obscure mites that no one has ever seen. In terms of existential angst, this must surely rank among the more absurd, but it is part of my job. I could just shoot from the hip, but I take even the more absurd aspects of my job seriously. I’ve blogged about this problem in other posts, but it hasn’t gone away, so here’s a current example: Box Mites. Being a ‘box mite’ is more a grade of evolution than a taxon – the ability to pull the legs into the body and shut the box has obvious advantages when a predator is trying to grab you by the leg and has evolved several times. The mechanism has been studied in some fascinating papers (e.g. Sanders & Norton 2004), but the authors have wisely never gone beyond the generic ‘box mite’. Unfortunately, Box Mites have done very well over the eons they have been around and acarologists have been giving them lots of obscure Greek and Latin derivative names for almost as long.

Atropacarus striculus (CL Koch, 1835)  – I hesitate to say what this may mean

Unfortunately, my scheme to use the Latin binomials as the source of my ‘common names’ has acquired an itch: the most diverse group of box mites belong to two superfamilies with names from the Greek for ‘lice’ (phthir) and ‘mite’ (acar), the Phthiracaroidea and Euphthiracaroidea, or ‘Louse Mites’ and ‘Good Louse Mites’.  There are mites that live like lice in the hairs and feathers of their hosts, but these aren’t them. The juveniles of box mites burrow in decaying plant material and the adults wander around the soil looking for each other and more decaying leaves and needles into which to lay their eggs. I don’t know what Perty was thinking in 1841 when he erected the genus Phthiracarus, but perhaps he was feeling itchy. Well, lousy name or not, even these mites have also been subjected to interesting studies of the box-making mechanism (e.g. Schmelzle et al. 2010) without wandering past the ‘box mite’ meme. So, I think I will draw my line in the sand at ‘box mite’ and try to summon forth names from the genus or species with which to adorn the box. So far, though, I must say I’m not having much luck. Take Atropacarus striculus as an example. I can’t find any root for ‘striculus’, but perhaps it refers to a stricture. I suppose the area where the legs are withdrawn may look strictured. Unfortunately, all box mites have a similar ‘stricture’. The generic name is also obscure. Perhaps from the Latin for hideous, terrible or cruel (atro-), but then why the extra ‘p’ before acarus? It’s times like these that I’m just glad I can still afford decent Australian wine. I think it is time I sought some inspiration there.

Faculifer sp. – a mite that infests the feathers of Australian doves


7 Responses to “Out of the box: A can of lice, good lice, naked middle thirds, and the hideous truth”

  1. Dac Crossley Says:

    Nice blog. Thanks. I guess Atropacarus is “not Tropacarus?”
    Cheers, Dac

  2. hproctor Says:

    Hi Dave:

    How about from ‘Atropos’, one of the three Greek goddesses of fate. She terminated the lives of mortals by snipping the thread of life with her shears. Maybe the closing up of Atropacarus reminded Koch of a pair of scissors….?


  3. Jeffrey Newton Says:

    Add and “h” and you have “atrophy”. So Atrop(h)acarus could be “wasting-away mite”, or “degenerating-its-own-legs-and-gnathosoma-when-startled mite”. Maybe the name just referred to their (seeming) decomposing habits?

  4. Fabio Hernandes Says:

    Maybe the Greek “tropos” = movement towards something, and the negative prefix “a” to give the apparent idea about the mite`s inability to move freely around…

  5. Wannes Says:

    Dear macromite

    I truly find your mite photographs fantastic! Is there any chance I could include 2 or 3 of these in a multipanel figure of my PhD dissertation to illustrate the diversity of mites? Of course, I will cite for each photograph the name of the copyright holder.


    Wannes Dermauw

    Ghent University

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