Multiple Environmental Factor Analysis in Habitats of the Harvest Mite Neotrombicula autumnalis (Acari≔ Trombiculidae) Suggests Extraordinarily High Euryoecious Biology

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Abstract

The harvest mite Neotrombicula autumnalis (Trombiculidae) has become a great nuisance in various vegetated areas in Germany over the last 15 years. According to reports of dermatologists, this species appears to have propagated and spread significantly. Moreover, cases of severe trombidiosis or trombidiosis-like skin reactions have been noticed at unusually early times of the year. Due to the lack of scientific studies, little is known about the ecology of N. autumnalis and its distribution, and preferred habitats cannot be predicted. A four-year study was conducted to identify trombiculid foci in different areas of Bonn in order (1) to determine the timing of larvae appearance in different years, (2) to identify the factors that lead to high larvae abundances at the mite foci (‘multiple factor analysis’), and (3) to develop an ecological control strategy. By means of the ‘tile catch method’ (TCM) which turned out to be most appropriate to collect data on the distribution and abundances of trombiculid mites, larvae of N. autumnalis were caught from mid July until the end of October/beginning of November. The distribution of the mites was patchy, supporting the hypothesis that certain factors cause a concentration in foci. Most of the mite foci had a fixed location for at least three years. Efforts to isolate nymphs and adults in larger quantities to gain knowledge about their preferred soil areas and soil depths failed. Only some nymphs of N. autumnalis could be found living 10-40 cm deep in the soil. Due to the restriction that the nymphs and adults can only rarely be isolated in the ground, the analysis of environmental factors was executed based on abundances of questing larvae on the soil surface. The detailed analysis of soil-physical, soil-chemical and meso-faunistic factors could not finally explain the unequal distribution of the mites, although the porosity of the soil had a statistically significant slight influence on the abundance of larvae, and soil pH bordered significance, also suggesting a slight influence. Furthermore, soil temperatures during the winter seasons in three subsequent years appeared too high to affect the harvest mite. The field experiments suggest that N. autumnalis and particularly its larval stages are extremely euryoecious (meaning tolerating very different environmental conditions). Further studies are necessary: additional investigations on the influence of certain abiotic environmental factors on N. autumnalis, the search for factors underlying the rhythmicity of its life cycle (‘zeitgeber’), and the reasons and mechanisms for heterogeneous distribution of soil fauna in general. Ecological control of the mite is, in principle, possible but only after identifying the foci and ascertaining their approximate dimensions with the TCM. This control strategy is the most promising one, albeit very laborious, emphasising the need of further research on the ecology of the harvest mite.

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