Fifty million years ago, a mite attached itself to an ant's head and likely began to feed, only to be entombed in a blob of tree resin that fossilized, preserving the moment for us to see today.
The piece of amber, described in the latest issue of Biology Letters, 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.
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"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."
(And if you're curious as to what a myriapod is, that term refers to centipedes, millipedes and related animals that all have elongated bodies with numerous leg-bearing segments.)
Dunlop and his team found the ant-mite specimen within a collection of amber originally obtained from the Kaliningrad region of the Russian Baltic coast.
While the researchers cannot conclusively say that the mite was feeding, that's certainly what it looks like.
Ants don't have a heart and lungs, since oxygen can just pass through their tiny bodies. They do have a colorless "blood," however, called the hemolymph.
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Mites have a taste for hemolymph, and to this day may be seen sucking it out of bees, ants and other creatures.
"In a wider context, the amber fossil is the oldest indication that certain mites were living with the Hymenoptera group of insects (i.e. ants, bees and wasps)," Dunlop said. "Some mites related to our amber fossils, like the Varroa mite, are important pests of honey bees today. Our fossil shows when these parasitic mites, which are an economic problem for humans today, may have first appeared."
If you have a genuine piece of amber (there are a lot of fakes), it might contain important inclusions like this. Amber looks great as jewelry, but it can preserve some rather cool and slightly macabre happenings, as for this Eocene era piece.