A mite attack, preserved for the ages
A parasite that bit into an ant’s head and rode its host to a sticky doom millions of years ago has been preserved in a dime-sized piece of amber. The fossil, reported online today in Biology Letters, is the first of a mite from a group whose species commonly plague today’s ants, bees, and wasps. Purchased from a collector who unearthed the gem somewhere in the Baltics, the tiny chunk of amber is probably somewhere between 44 million and 49 million years old. The mite (the large, tick-shaped blob at upper right, above the ant’s head) is one of only 14 known fossils from a group known as Laelapidae, whose modern relatives often live among fallen leaves on the forest floor and parasitize ants. (They’re rare in the fossil record because they’re typically preserved only when they hitch a ride into the trees on a host unfortunate enough to become trapped in oozing resin.) Further study of this gruesome specimen—and others possibly sitting undiscovered in museum drawers worldwide, the researchers say—might provide more information about the origin and evolution of such parasitic mites. That’s of interest because one of this group’s closest modern relatives is the varroa mite, a devastating parasite that afflicts honey bees worldwide.
| image: J. Dunlop/Museum für Naturkunde Berlin