I was literally on a treasure hunt this cold, Spring afternoon as I carefully turned over big pieces of bark and rotted logs, eagerly anticipating whatever I may find. I get to meet the most amazing members of the forest community this way! I am enthralled every single time I play this "game." There is nothing I love more than photographing nature, and there is nothing that makes me kneel to the ground faster than discovering something I've never seen before!
I was not disappointed today! I lifted a shred of bark from the cool, moist leaf litter and immediately knew that the tiny, brilliant red dot that accented the dark earth was going to lead me on another adventure into the unknown! I photographed this teeny speck of color as best I could, but since he was only about the size of the point of a pencil, I didn't even know if he would be in focus. Luckily, I got one decent shot. As amazingly bright red as he was, he disappeared like magic into the dull, decayed plant material.
This Red Velvet Mite is not an insect, but an eight-legged arachnid arthropod (related to spiders and scorpions). Their legs have a unique arrangement; they are in four sets of two. These mites are members of the subphylum, Chelicerata (organisms possessing tiny lobster-like claws that function as mouth parts). They are found worldwide within leaf litter, under logs, and within the layers of decayed material of the forest and woodland floors. As you can see, the "hairs" on their bodies and legs actually make it appear as if they are covered in soft, red velvet.
To begin life, the larvae of this mite hatch from eggs, and survive initially as a parasites, attaching themselves to other arthropods and feeding on their blood. A good example of this behavior is shown in the picture below that I took last summer of a female scorpion fly with a red mite larva attached to the back of its head.
The larva depends on a host, but it will eventually mature, detach itself, and make its home in the soil. Once mature and living in the soil, the red velvet mite becomes a predator and will keep busy devouring many species of small insects and their eggs. They can even be cannibalistic, devouring other mites and their eggs. They have very few natural enemies due to their bright red color, which indicates to everything around them how terrible they taste! In fact, experiments have shown that when they were offered as prey, they were either refused or immediately spat out.
These mites exhibit an interesting mating behavior...the male will deposit sperm onto leaves and twigs, and then lay down a trail that leads to the sperm. This trail attracts the female, and if she successfully follows the path she will then sit in the sperm. If another male finds a sperm trail that is not his product, he will destroy it and lay down his own to ensure that the next lucky female will be fertilized by him. This behavior also involves a type of mating "dance" with the male and female encircling each other and tapping each other with their forelegs.
The presence of the red velvet mite is very critical to the environment. I liken their existence to that of "team players"; their role, along with other beneficial terrestrial arthropods, being to participate in the decomposition process within the soil matter, and humus of the forest floor. Due to their parasitism in the larval stage and appetite in their mature stage, they also play an important role in pest control. It is very interesting that such a tiny organism plays such an integral part of maintaining a healthy ecosystem.