Abstract

Although oribatid mites are essential to the decomposition of plant tissues in modern temperate forests by assisting conversion of primary productivity to soil organic matter, little is known of their paleoecologic history. Previously there has been scattered and anecdotal evidence documenting oribatid mite detritivory in Pennsylvanian plant tissues. This study evaluates the incidence of oribatid mite damage for seven major coal-ball deposits from the Illinois and Appalachian sedimentary basins, representing a 17 million year interval from the Euramerican tropics. Although this interval contains the best anatomically preserved plant tissues with oribatid mite borings in the fossil record, coeval oribatid mite body-fossils are absent. By contrast, the known body-fossil record of oribatid mites commences during the Middle Devonian, but does not reappear until the Early Jurassic, at which time mite taxa are modern in aspect. All major plant taxa occurring in Pennsylvanian coal swamps, including lycopsids, sphenopsids, ferns, seed ferns and cordaites, were consumed by oribatid mites. Virtually every type of plant tissue was used by mites, notably indurated tissues such as bark, fibrovascular bundles and especially wood, as well as softer seed megagametophytic and parenchymatic tissues within stems, roots and leaves. Significant evidence also exists for secondary consumption by mites of tissues in macroarthropod coprolites. Our data indicate that oribatid mites consumed dead, aerially-derived plant tissues at ground level, as well as root-penetrated tissues substantially within the peat. Oribatid mites were important arthropod decomposers in Pennsylvanian coal swamps of Euramerica. The wood boring functional-feeding-guild was expanded by insects into above-ground, live trees during the early Mesozoic. New food resources for insect borers resulted from penetration of live tissues such as cambium and phloem, and the invasion of heartwood and other hard tissues mediated by insect-fungus symbioses. Termites and holometabolous insects were prominent contributors to this second wave of wood-boring, exploiting gymnosperms and angiosperms as both detritivores and herbivores. An earlier emplacement of oribatid mites as detritivores of dead plant tissues continued to the present, but without a documented trace-fossil record.

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