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These bizarre looking creatures are GIANT RED VELVET MITES and are possibly the strangest animals I've ever kept, which is really saying something given my animal collection past and present!

Whilst many people might think of mites as being pest animals (the house dust mite for example being responsible for allergies) many mites are actually very useful to us and to the environment.  Many species are useful decomposers of forest leaf litter much like earthworms, woodlice and springtails, whereas some species of predatory mites are deliberately spread on arable farmland to control pest species such as aphids!  Still others are used specifically by French and German cheese makers to refine the taste of their cheeses! 

This species, like most mites, is certainly harmless to humans and they are exquisitely beautiful - their bodies are soft and covered in small hair-like structures which make them appear to be made of red velvet, hence their common name!

 

There are currently about 50,000 known species of mites but scientists believe that this number might only represent 5% of the total species in the world.  Part of the problem is that most mites are no longer than one millimetre in length, whereas these giant red velvet mites are quite ENORMOUS as mites go, measuring in at more than a  whopping half an inch or 12 - 15 mm!

This particular species lives in semi-desert areas of northern and central India and is known by many other names including the 'rain mite', because they are only seen for a few weeks a year in the early part of the monsoon season.  After the early rains, massive numbers of them will come to the surface of the soils in which they spend the vast majority of their lives and then they will disappear underground again a few weeks later until the same time the next year! Amazing.

The vivid red colouration of the velvet mites acts as a warning to potential predators that they taste unpleasant to eat and as such they have very few natural enemies, the main one being other velvet mites as they are known to be cannibalistic if food is scarce!  If they do feel threatened they fold their legs underneath their bodies to protect them, before unfolding them and walking away when they sense that the danger has passed. When they fold their legs underneath themselves they look a bit like a bright red raisin!!

Whilst mites may not be everybody's idea of a cute animal I have to say that I have grown very fond of these velvet mites very early on in my time keeping them.  I also genuinely believe that they are one of the most attractive animals I have ever had the privilege of keeping here, as well as undoubtedly one of the strangest!

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