By Arthur V. Evans
This past July, I came across a lone individual of a giant red velvet mite, Dinothrombium magnificum (LeConte) emerging from its burrow just east of the Patagonia Mountains in southeastern Arizona where it inhabits the Sonoran Desert and adjacent uplands.
Giant red velvet mites are spectacular for several reasons. First, the largest individuals measure in at a whopping one centimeter in length, which makes them the largest mites in the world. They are covered with a thick coat of scarlet hair-like setae. The mite’s bright red color is apparently aposematic in function and serves to warn predators of their bad taste. Entomophagous animals offered giant red velvet mites either rejected the arachnids outright or quickly spit them out.
Although often difficult to find, they are sometimes extremely abundant locally, if only for a few hours at time. For example, after a brief yet intense thunderstorm, a massive emergence of giant red velvet mites was sighted from the air at an altitude of 1500 feet just north of Tucson. An estimated 3-5 million mites had emerged in an area roughly two acres in size!
The annual emergence of the giant mites is apparently timed to coincide with that of their primary prey, termites. However, their opportunity to gorge themselves on abundant termite reproductives is quite limited. After mating, the termites quickly shed their wings and bury themselves so that they are out of reach of the mite’s predatory embrace. Adult giant red velvet mites spend most of their lives in subterranean burrows in a diapause-like state waiting for a specific set of ecological conditions triggered by summer monsoons.
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© 2010, A.V. Evans