“Go Pick Up a Mite!” Two Cents From an Acarologist and His Love for Mites
By Lorena Lopez, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Meet Ray Fisher, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arkansas. He earned his bachelor’s in zoology at Auburn University (2004), where he spent his evenings discussing science with the biology faculty and grad students and his weekends exploring the natural history of nearby Appalachian forests. Fisher received his master’s degree in entomology from the University of Kentucky in 2009 and earned his Ph.D. in entomology at the University of Arkansas in 2016. Fisher says his time as a Ph.D. student was life-altering, professionally and personally, and led to the development of his research into a grant that funded his postdoctoral work. He built his career as an acarologist—a scientist specialized in the study of mites—focused on mite systematics, and he was recently elected as a governing board member of the Acarological Society of America.
Lopez: Can you describe your current research?
Fisher: Certainly! I am a systematist with broad interests in the natural history of arthropods. All arthropods. I have been fascinated by the group for my entire life. My current projects have a central theme: the evolution and diversity of mites. Most people do not know very much about mites. And yet, these small arachnids exhibit a stupendous array of forms and feeding ecologies; they have successfully invaded virtually every habitat on all continents and in all oceans, from Antarctica to deep-sea hydrothermal vents and from mouse tongues, moth ears, turtle butts, bat penises, and salamander toes, to our very own faces; and they play important roles as decomposers, predators, and pests. This mismatch between the importance of the group and how little we know about them fuels my studies.
My focus has been the largest radiation of mites, which includes velvet mites, chiggers, and water mites, collectively called Parasitengona. Members of this group have complex life histories involving predatory adults that occupy a range of habitats and parasitic larvae that utilize a variety of hosts from harvestmen to sea snake noses. Many species are ecologically impactful, useful bioindicators, or medically important, and some are regularly noticed by the public. Despite their importance and ubiquity, they remain poorly understood, and the habits of nearly all remain a mystery.
One mystery I have spent most of my time investigating is the invasion of freshwater by the most successful parasitengones, water mites, which comprise over 6,000 species. The currently accepted idea is that terrestrial velvet mites “took the plunge” into freshwater, subsequently diversifying into water mites. A smattering of five to seven weird families of mites are considered living remnants of this transitional period that took place during the Triassic, because they have features intermediate between water mites and velvet mites. I refer to them as Water Transitional Forms (WTFs). Using modern phylogenomics, my collaborators and I intend to put an end to the age-old debate of freshwater invasion. I don’t want to give too much away here, since I am preparing to publish, but suffice it to say the story of parasitengone evolution is far more interesting than previously thought. Stay tuned!
Lopez: What’s your favorite aspect of your research?
Fisher: The organisms themselves! Velvet mites and water mites are fascinating creatures that I’ve truly enjoyed working with. Because they are so regularly noticed by the public, I am able to engage with a wider audience than I would be able to with most mites. Also, even backyard species don’t have names. You may have encountered the bright red mites cruising pavement for windblown pollen in the spring (Erythraeidae: Balaustium). We used to think most of these were introduced from Europe, but molecular evidence suggests well over 100 species in the U.S. and Canada alone! The takeaway is this: Go pick up a mite. Yep, you likely just found a new species. If you find one of the described ones, well, now that’s special!
These mites help me with a personal struggle as well, namely the fight against specializing. I am a naturalist at heart. My love for mites is merely an outgrowth of my naturalist perspective. I want to learn it all, and I want to awaken the appreciation for nature in others that is often dormant. From moss sex to mosquitoes as loveable pollinators, I’m hooked, and I want you to be hooked as well. But my generalist approach goes against the need to specialize during graduate school. Well, I’ll tell you a secret, I beat the system. If you want to study everything, just specialize on an organismal group that—drum roll—parasitizes everything! So, I am a specialist on mites, which allows me to be a generalist exploring the scale and wonder of life.
Lopez: What’s a recent research challenge you’ve had to overcome, and how are you doing so?
Fisher: The main challenge I have had to face is that mites are—well, mites are small. In particular, the method my collaborators and I are using (Anchored Hybrid Enrichment) requires samples to have a minimum 25 nanograms of DNA and to lack RNA. Because of the latter, the DNA collection I spent many years building prior to the start of this project was rendered useless. Most terrestrial species were either re-collected or were borrowed from my colleagues. Critically, Ian Smith (retired water mite taxonomist at the Canadian National Collection) provided a massive collection of water mites that included nearly every genus known from North America. The moral of the story is that colleagues are essential. Good research is not accomplished alone.
The minimum DNA requirement was much more challenging. To acquire 25 nanograms of DNA, we should be able to pool small samples together, collectively adding up to more than this requirement, right? Yes, but mostly, no. For that to work, we need to be certain the specimens being pooled are members of the same species. And two mites in the same sample that look quite similar are often different species, each of them undescribed. Remember how excited I was about mites being so unknown?
Our solution to this problem was to, for each specimen, sequence a fast-evolving gene that would allow us to determine with high confidence if two specimens were the same species. (We used COI—cytochrome oxidase subunit 1—which is commonly used for this purpose.) This allowed us to pool specimens of the same species to reach 25 nanograms of DNA. In the end, we have sequenced more than 6,000 specimens in order to get about 500 adequate samples.
A byproduct of this effort is that we now have a boatload of mites organized with high confidence into species-level groups (albeit, it is not possible to assign names to these groups without future taxonomic work). Most of these specimens are from the U.S. and Canada. For me, it has been a joy to be the first person able to peer into our regional diversity and see patterns in mite distributions from across the continent that are akin to what we see in other animals. The age of discovery is now!
Lopez: How has your life changed in the transition from graduate student to postdoctoral researcher?
Fisher: In many ways, my professional life has not changed from graduate student to post-doc—the dominant concern remains research and publishing. One aspect that sets my experience apart is that the principal investigator of the lab, Ashley Dowling (also my Ph.D. adviser and friend), took a two-year position as program director at the National Science Foundation, just as I began my post-doc. His absence resulted in my de facto supervision of the lab, where I gained experience maintaining a lab, advising students, and acting as full instructor for two courses in the fall of 2017. Also, our curator retired, so I acted as interim collection manager and identifier for the Identification Service. These experiences were fantastic, and I learned so much, but they were indeed a jolting shift from being a student.
Lopez: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your graduate-student self?
Fisher: The importance of collaborators and colleagues never ceases to impress me. Be kind. Value the people around you. They will be your references for applications, collaborators on projects, employers when you move institutions, and occasionally, lifelong friends. Cultivate meaningful relationships with those in your department, as well as in your discipline when at meetings. The mite community is rife with wonderful people, and I could not have done my research without many of them. But it’s more than that. During my master’s I studied parasitoid wasps and even though I haven’t worked on them in over a decade, I remain elated to connect with my hymenopterist friends at meetings and whenever I can. Relationships matter.
Also, focusing on self-growth (including therapy) can be helpful and life-altering to anyone and immensely beneficial to your relationships. There remains a negative stigma on this topic, and I think it is important to treat it honestly. Graduate school is arduous and learning more about yourself can only benefit the process. So, find a therapist, listen to relationship podcasts, learn to journal, do what it takes to prioritize your self-growth. You won’t regret it.
Finally, the importance of time management can never be undersold. I needed this advice more than anything. There is no prestige in spending all your time at the lab. Often, long work hours reflect poor time-management skills rather than a strong work ethic. Getting the most out of your workday involves planning the day before, working with intensity when at work, and, counter-intuitively, leaving work behind at the end of the day and pursuing your life. Work is not life; even if you are like me and are passionate about the subject, you still need harmony. Both you and your work thrive on a vibrant out-of-work life, and finding that harmony is all about time-management skills. I am still learning and doing my best to practice these skills daily. And again, get help! Time management is an elaborate skillset that you should not be expected to know inherently. Productivity experts have a lot to say about it, so learn all you can as though you are starting from ground zero. That’s my two cents anyway!
Lopez: What is one thing you would change about the field of acarology?
Fisher: I love David Attenborough and I’ve grown up watching his documentaries. Learning such a diversity of organisms has allowed me to see more of the world when I look out at it. As scientists, I think often we are so invested in the research that we forget the organisms. I would like to see more emphasis on natural history, science communication, and learning about the critters themselves. Think about it: At an average conference, how many cool stories rest within the heads of all those experts? And yet, if you want to learn about mites, you have to come to a mite-specific symposium and listen to me drone on and on about my own complicated research topic. Where are the Attenborough videos?! Moreover, why are these presentations at conferences not available? And why can we not contribute easily as a cultural norm outside of conferences? So, the one thing I would change is to have a videographic outlet where fun, sci-comm-oriented stories were not only available but revered and expected of students and researchers, such that fellow specialists, non-specialists, and the public alike all had access. Yes, dedicated individuals can create their own YouTube channels. But I wish there were something more collective and expected.
Lopez: What’s the coolest thing about the mites you study that you wish more people knew?
Fisher: That they are relatively easy to identify, are ubiquitous, are largely unknown, and have fascinating lifestyles! Mites are widely known to be a daunting group. They are difficult to identify and work with. But locally, the situation can be quite different. It can be easy and rewarding to examine the mites around you. If nothing else, snap a picture of them and post them to BugGuide or iNaturalist (where I will likely ID them!). If you take up learning the mites around you, you will find similar enhancement of your experience as you would by first learning to differentiate blue jays from blue birds or water snakes from water moccasins.
Natural history is not just for the eccentric nerds among us. Consider the dragonfly you noticed soaring overhead. Just a dragonfly? Maybe not. On the body of that dragonfly might be larval Arrenurus—a subgenus of water mites that parasitizes odonates. These larvae engorge on host fluids until they are returned to water, where they develop into blue-green predatory adults. Taking this knowledge onboard makes that dragonfly just a little more interesting. After all, you never know when your experience can be enriched by a mite.
Lorena Lopez, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral associate in the Entomology & Nematology Department at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, and the Southeastern Branch Representative to the ESA Early-Career Professionals Committee. Email: email@example.com.