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Snake Mites - the life cycle of those tiny, ugly little pests we love to hate.

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

Ever wondered why mites are so damn hard to eradicate? Turns out they thrive in the conditions most of our reptiles need to thrive in. Read on to discover more…..

The Snake mite (Ophionyssus natricus) is a small mite which belongs in a class of invertebrates know as Arachnida. Snake mites are extremely small but are visible to the naked eye. Mites are ectoparasites. This is a parasite that lives outside the host and will infest the skin of its host. It is not known exactly where the Snake mite originated from, but it is it thought Africa. The clinical term for a mite or tick infestation is known as Acariasis.

Snake mite are among the most commonly found parasites in reptile collections worldwide. It was historically thought to be a result of bad husbandry and quarantine practises, but there are many factors which can lead a keeper to be dealing with mites. Mites can be transferred as simply as a visitor who unknowingly has mites attending your residence, a visit to a local petshop, a reptile show, there are seemingly endless ways they can enter by accident. Mites can also be transferred via clothing, reptile equipment or from adding a new reptile to your collection.

Engorged Snake Mite, Ophionyssus natricus

Engorged Snake Mite, Ophionyssus natricus

Mite photos taken by Dann Thombs.

In their natural habitat, snakes have the ability to move from place to place. As they do not stay in one spot, this exposes the parasites to their predators such as other mites Taurrus sp. Combine this with fluctuation of temperatures and sloughing of skin; snake mites do not present the same problem to wild snakes as that they do to a captive animals.

If left untreated, an infestation of Snake mites may have serious consequences. While Snake mites have a short lifespan (up to 40 days) they can wreak havoc in that time. They are a blood sucking parasite which can severely weaken reptiles causing illness. Snake mites were once thought to be only found on snakes, but can also occur captive and wild lizards.

Mites cause weakening the reptile in question by feeding off their blood. The mites cause shedding problems, scale damage and subsequent infection, anaemia, dehydration, weight loss, dermatitis, irritation leading to severe stress and depression. In severe cases infestations may lead to death. Snake mites have also been thought to be connected in the transmission of Aeromonas bacterial infections, Inclusion Body Disease and also Ophidian Paramyxovirus.

The Snake mite has 5 life stages.

· Egg

· Larva

· Protonymph

· Deutonymph

· Adult.

Stage 1 - Eggs - The eggs are invisible to the naked eye and are not usually laid on the host. Typically, they are laid in dark, humid places like along the edges of the enclosure. The eggs are white in colour and sticky. If the eggs are laid at 25°C, they will usually hatch in a couple of days, if there is at least 85% humidity.

Stage 2 - Larva - Approximately two days after hatching, the mites go through a larval stage. At this young age the mites are capable of walking, but stay close to the eggs. They have not started feeding off the host yet. They are still invisible to the naked eye at this stage and are white or yellowish in colour. Larvae will need at least 75% humidity to move onto the next stage of their life cycle. In the three intermediate stages (larva, protonymph and deutonymph) the mite must moult at least once to be able to develop into the next stage. As mentioned earlier, the life cycle of a mite is quite short, and life stages can usually be completed in 13-19 days.

Stage 3 - Protonymph - Next the larvae grow into the protonymph stage. This stage of the life cycle can take anywhere between three days to two weeks. It is during this stage the protonymphs start to feed. They need blood to be able to move into the next stage of their life cycle. The protonymphs now stray from the eggs and start to move around the scale surfaces and head plates of the reptiles. The protonymphs are now visible to the naked eye. They go from the whiteish or yellowish colour to red after feeding and look like tiny, fat beetles.

Stage 4 - Deutonymph - They advance into the deutonymph stage after they have fed and moulted. Like the the protonymph stage the mites are now visible to the naked eye. This stage of the mite’s lifecycle doesn’t require feeding and is quite short – usually a couple of days before moulting and moving on to an adult. However, Deutonymphs are able to survive for up to 31 days without having fed. Final moulting takes about a day to complete before the deutonymph becomes an adult mite. Adult mites continue to feed on the host and if undetected live their life out this way.

Stage 5 - Adult Mites - Now adult mites, they will suck blood to engorgement. Once they find a site suitable to feed on, they go between the scales and use their chelicerae to pierce the skin and then feed on the hosts blood. Male snake mites are dark yellowish-brown to dark red, or even black. This colour will vary, depending on the whether it has consumed blood recently. Female are are bigger than the males and are always black making them easier to notice. Fully engorged mites can reach up to several millimetres in length. Snake mites have been recorded to weigh 50 μg, but can weigh up to 750 μg when fully engorged. Engorgement takes between four to eight days. Once engorged, the females lay approximately 20 eggs. Females don’t need a male to reproduce. A single female is able to cause an infestation in a reptile collection. Adult females will need to feed two - three times at one to two week intervals. Adult females are able to lay up to 60-80 eggs in a lifetime.

For a Snake mite to develop into an adult the ideal temperatures are between 24-29°C with a relative humidity of 70-90%. If the conditions aren’t favourable the life cycles can be slowed down or completely stopped. It has been recorded all mite stages can be killed when submitted to temperatures above 41°C or below 2°C for several days. In terms of humidity, the mites will perish at levels below 20%. Mites can also be drowned if they are kept submerged in water, but eggs may survive.

Ophionyssys natricius has been recorded to bite humans.

Mites on a Jungle Python, Morelia spilota spilota

Mites on Jungle Python, Morelia spilota spilota

It is imperative that mites must be eradicated from a collection to maintain good husbandry. Not only do you risk the health and in bad cases the loss of your animals, you risk those around you by easily transmitting the mites.

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Olive Python, Liasis olivaceus olivaceus

References and recommended reading:

Eipper S.C. 2012, A Guide to Australian Snakes in Captivity - Elapids & Colubrids, Reptile Keeper Publications, Burleigh Heads

Eipper S.C. & Eipper T. 2019 A Naturalist's Guide to the Snakes of Australia, John Beaufoy Publishing, Oxford

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