Eight-legged ‘invisible’ creatures have sex on your face while you sleep

The bizarre mating habits of tiny eight-legged creatures that are "invisible to the naked eye" and have sex on your face while you sleep have been revealed by researchers.

The mites, which are related to spiders, cling to the hair on our faces as they copulate, using the melatonin secreted by our skin as fuel for their love-making.

Virtually no-one escapes the nocturnal nookie as the mites are passed on during birth and carried by almost every person, with numbers peaking in adults as our pores grow bigger.

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Now scientists have lifted the lid on the secret lives of the critters, which can only be seen under the microscope and feast on the oils we secrete.

The first ever full DNA analysis shows the mites are becoming such simplified organisms they may soon become one with us.

Co-lead author Professor Alejandra Perotti, of the University of Reading, said: "We found these mites have a different arrangement of body part genes to other similar species due to them adapting to a sheltered life inside pores.

"These changes to their DNA have resulted in some unusual body features and behaviours."

More than 48,000 of species of mites exist, with two of those living on our faces.

The mites look like wall plugs and have a long cone-shaped body, propped up by stubby legs at one end.

We spend more time with the weird creatures than any other animal and they are said to be beneficial to us as they protect against acne and scarring by keeping pores unplugged.

Genetic reduction has enabled them to survive with the minimum repertoire of proteins – the lowest number ever seen in mites.

The mites lack UV protection and have lost the gene that causes animals to be awakened by daylight.

They have also been left unable to produce melatonin – a compound that makes small invertebrates active at night.

Instead they hook up with each other near the surface and fuel their all-night mating sessions using the melatonin secreted by human skin at dusk.

Their unique gene arrangement also results in their strange mating habits.

Their reproductive organs have moved anteriorly and the males have a penis that protrudes upwards from the front of their body.

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The males have to position themselves underneath the female when mating – and copulate as they both cling onto the human hair.

One of their genes has inverted, giving them a particular arrangement of mouth-appendages extra protruding for gathering food.

The mites have many more cells at a young rather than adult age – countering the previous assumption parasitic animals reduce their cell numbers early in development.

It is the first step towards the mites becoming symbionts – very closely associated with its much larger human host.

The lack of exposure to potential mates that could add new genes to their offspring may have set mites on course for an evolutionary dead end – and potential extinction.

The phenomenon has been observed in bacteria living inside cells before – but never in an animal.

Co-lead author Dr Henk Braig, of Bangor University, added: "Mites have been blamed for a lot of things.

"The long association with humans might suggest that they also could have simple but important beneficial roles, for example, in keeping the pores in our face unplugged."

The study was published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

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