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Microarthropods at Coal-Fire Gas Vents

By: , Posted on: January 18, 2019

The phylum Arthropoda, from the Greek arthro (joint) and podos (foot), comprises about 75 – 85% of all known living and fossil members of the kingdom Animalia.  Arthropods are adapted to life on land, in fresh and salt water, and in the air. They range in size from microscopic to that of king crabs with a twelve-foot arm span, and they are found in ecosystems that vary from the deep sea to mountain tops. Well-known to people are arthropod members of 4 subphyla. These include centipedes and millipedes (subphylum Myriapoda); spiders, mites, ticks, scorpions and horseshoe crabs (subphylum Chelicerata); insects, springtails, protruans (coneheads), and diplurans (two-pronged bristle tails) (subphylum Hexapoda); and crayfish, shrimp, prawns, copepods, barnacles, woodlice, water fleas, crabs, and lobsters (subphylum Crustacea).  Microarthropods, depending on the reference, are arthropods that are 5.0 mm in size or smaller.

At the Centralia, Pennsylvania and Healy, Alaska coal-mine fires, gas vents emitting water vapor and CO2 provided auspicious environments for the growth of vegetation adjacent to and near these vents. This vegetation created a habitat for microarthropods discovered to be living there; including springtails, mites, beetles, beetle larvae, thrips, and aphids. A significant finding from this research is the fact that microarthropods found at the two mine fires exhibit a tolerance of unknown duration to compounds in the gas, including toluene (C7H8), benzene (C6H6), and CO, that are toxic to humans and other animals.  In addition, coal-fire gas exhaled at the surface and the associated elevated temperatures likely created an oasis for these microarthropods by warding off competition from other organisms that are more sensitive to the gas, combustion-related temperatures, or both.  The occurrence of select microarthropods living at and adjacent to coal-fire gas vents is a new scientific discovery, discussed and illustrated in chapter 2, Volume 5, of the companion to  Volumes 1-4 of the Elsevier book: Coal and Peat Fires: A Global Perspective.

Only springtails occurred adjacent to the vents, the highest-temperature sampling locations.  This suggests that of all the microarthropods identified, springtails were the most tolerant of the gas and higher temperatures at the vents.  Springtails and mites, both living near the gas vents, may have a higher tolerance than other microarthropods to the gas and ambient soil and vegetation temperatures due to combustion.  Entomobryomorpha and Poduromorpha springtails and Oribatida mites were randomly distributed with increasing distance from a gas vent at Centralia, and the abundance of microarthropods increased with distance from this vent.  Most Oribatida occurred at the furthest sampling location from the vent, where beetles also occurred.  The is likely because more Oribatida were picked up and carried on the backs of beetles to the furthest sampling location as opposed to the beetles that migrated there.

An eight-step procedure, outlined in chapter 2, for collecting microarthropods at coal-mine fires will facilitate the acquisition and interpretation of the relationships between these faunae; coal-fire gas chemistry; and gas, soil, and vegetation temperatures at and near gas vents or other “hot spots” at coal fires. Examples of microarthropods collected at the Centralia Mine fire and discussed in chapter 2, are illustrated below.

Scanning Electron Microscope Images of Microarthropods

Collected Near a Coal-Fire Gas Vent

These arthropods were collected from St. Ignatius Cemetery at the Centralia Mine Fire in Pennsylvania. Details about the collection locality and the anatomical features are discussed and illustrated in chapter 2 of Volume 5. (A) Mite: Pedipalps are used to explore the environment. Leg segments include the trochanter and patella. (B) Thrips: The left labial palp is a mouth part used for feeding. (C) Adult Beetle: Hexapoda insect member of the order Coleoptera. Anatomical structures pictured here include four of the six legs, all attached to the thorax. The other two are broken off the prothorax (front thorax) or bent underneath it. The pronotum, also called the prothoracic shield, is a hard plate that covers part of the prothorax. The elytra are hard or soft forewings attached to the thorax. They are used to protect the underlying hindwings used by species that fly (not all do) when the elytra are raised. (D) Beetle Grub (larva). An inverted Y, characteristic of beetle larvae, is subtly visible at the arrowhead that points to the grub’s head. Also visible is the raster, at the bottom of the last abdominal segment and in front of a grub’s anus. It contains the collection of spines, setae, and the tissue between them. The pattern of spines is used for taxonomic classification. SEM notation in the black bar at the bottom of each photo: HV is high voltage; HFW is the horizontal field width; SE is secondary electrons; WD is the working distance from the lens to the object; det (detector) is EDT, an Everhardt-Thornley Detector; Teneo is the model of the SEM manufactured by FEI, now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific. Photos by Yelena White and Glenn B. Stracher, 2016.

Volume 5: Coal and Peat Fires, A Global Perspective: Case Studies – Advances in Field and Laboratory Research. 

Volume 5 the companion to Volumes 1 – 4 of Elsevier’s Coal and Peat Fires: A Global Perspective includes the latest research findings about coal and peat fires in the United States, China, India, France, Spain, Poland, and Ireland. Included are chapters about the discovery of microarthropods at two mine fires, the oldest recorded uses of burning coal, the effects of combustion and coal waste on a riverine system, remote sensing analysis of coal fires, gas explosion and spontaneous combustion experiments, and phases associated with the by-products of combustion. This essential reference, along with Volumes 1-4, includes a companion website with an interactive world map of coal and peat fires, slide presentations, color photos, videos, and research data.

In Volume 5, chapter 2 presents the first comprehensive coal-fires work of its kind, namely, detailed information about the phylum Arthropoda, the procedures for collecting and extracting microarthropods that potentially occur in vegetation at coal fires, and images of and a discussion about arthropods.  These include mites, springtails, beetles, beetle larvae, thrips, and aphids extracted from samples of vegetation collected at the Centralia Mine Fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania and the Healy Mine Fire in Healy, Alaska. As such, chapter 2 will be of interest to biologists, especially entomologists, as well as Earth scientists. The chapter, one of 20 devoted to case studies about field and laboratory advances in coal and peat-fires research, is authored by Glenn B. Stracher, Jimmy Wedincamp, Breana Simmons, John P. Shields, Yelena White, Melissa A. Nolter, Anupma Prakash, and Nancy Lindsley-Griffin (late).

Volumes 1- 5: Coal and Peat Fires: A Global Perspective is the most comprehensive five-volume collection of interdisciplinary research ever published about ancient and recent coal and peat fires burning around the world.  Its companion website includes an online world map of coal and peat fires, videos, presentations, beautiful color illustrations, and important research data.  The new and exciting fifth volume includes the latest perspectives about these fires, from field to laboratory research.




The author thanks Elsevier’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Acqusisitions Editor, Amy Shapiro, and Senior Editorial Project Manager,Tasha Frank, for their review of this SciTech Connect article.

Dr. Glenn B. Stracher is Professor Emeritus at East Georgia State College, University System of Georgia, Swainsboro, Georgia, USA. He is the senior editor of Volumes 1-5 and the editor of Volume 5.
















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