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Ancient Mite Preserved in Amber Munches on Ant's Head

Sep 11, 2014 01:29 PM EDT

Fifty million years ago, a mite started munching on an innocent ant's head, and the pair has just recently been found preserved in amber, a new study describes. While fascinating, the discovery more importantly represents the earliest known evidence for an ecological association between mites and ants.

"This discovery is important because these parasitic mites in the genus Myrmozercon still live in association with ants today," lead author Jason Dunlop told Discovery News.

"The amber fossil shows that this specialized group of mites was around 50 million years ago and had already starting living with ants back then," continued Dunlop, who is curator of arachnids and myriapods at the Museum of Natural History, Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science. "It is one of the oldest records of a mite group called the mesostigmatids, which are extremely rare as fossils."

The unlucky ant and its assailant were trapped in tree resin, which eventually fossilized into amber, about 50 million years ago. Dunlop and his team stumbled upon the specimen within a collection of amber originally found from the Kaliningrad region of the Russian Baltic coast.

The parasite, called a mesostigmatid mite, is a small, eyeless arachnid that is most likely found in soil and leaf litter while gardening.

"They are tiny, fast-moving, often orange-colored mites that run around skittishly in the earth," Dunlop described to National Geographic.

Mites are actually fairly common - there are 11,400 around today - and yet it's rare to find them so well-preserved, likely because scavengers eat them before they can become fossilized.

It may seem like the obvious explanation, but researchers cannot definitively say that the mite was indeed chomping down on the poor ant (Ctenobethylus goepperti). Although, mites do enjoy tasting hemolymph - the colorless blood found in ants - and even today suck the substance out of bees, ants and other creatures.

Until now, scientists weren't sure of the relationship between mites and ants, despite living in close proximity to one another. Based on the amber fossil, Dunlop and his colleagues suspect that mites were a dangerous nuisance to ants.

The findings were reported in the journal Biology Letters.

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