Where do fleas come from and why do they exist?
As pet lovers, we are all too familiar with the existence of fleas and the pain they can cause to our beloved furry friends. We take all measures necessary to get rid of them and ensure that such an infestation does not lapse again. In the United States of America, around $2.8 billion dollars are expended annually towards flea treatment veterinary bills and a staggering $1.6 billion dollars is spent annually for flea removal by pet groomers. Approximately $4 billion dollars are spent annually for prescription flea treatment and another $348 million is contributed towards flea pest control systems. That’s a lot of money spent on fleas behalf. Where do all of these fleas come from?
Fleas are tiny, flightless insects and are primarily identified as parasites of mammals. They survive by feasting on the blood of the hosting animals or birds. A flattened body structure with proficient jumping skills and claw-like limbs allows them to jump and cling onto numerous any desireable host.
The oriental rat flea carries bacteria which causes the bubonic plague. This disease has begun to spread across the world yet again, starting from the country of Madagascar. In fact, as at December 2014, the nation reported around 126 cases and 47 deaths due to this deadly disease.
Around 2,500 flea species have so far been studied worldwide and there are several more that haven’t been identified. Imagine the terror these insects can cause if left to grow out of control!
Where Did Fleas Originate?
Fleas originated in the early Cretaceous period. They were at first recognized as ectoparasites of mammals before expanding to other species, like birds. Each and every species of fleas are extremely adept at choosing their host. Some species even prefer to not breed on any other host, except for their “Chosen One”!
Although we tend to cringe at the sight of fleas, we are unaware of the fantastic design and mechanism these insects are made of. This fascinating body structure was first illustrated by Robert Hooke, a scientist, and draughtsman, in his book “Micrographia”. His drawings of fleas using the earliest compound microscopes gave insight into the world of microorganisms and parasites. Hooke’s book presents a graphical image of the flea, sprawled 18 inches across the page and guarantees a feeling of amazement and curiosity.
The sight of these insects and knowing their dangers has made us repel them, but Robert Hooke felt otherwise. He is all praise for the complex and dynamic structure of these insects, from their jumping ability to their defensive shell. They also have an elongated pair of feelers or smellers between their forelegs. They use these to both sniffs out a prospective host as well as aid in the hopping to and from them.
Hooke did not intend to incite a sense of horror or disgust with the microscopic picture presented in his findings. He wished to create a sense of wonderment and awe for fleas by simplifying their skeletal anatomy as a basic animal model with a head, body, and limbs.
Despite having no wings, fleas can grow up to a length of 1/16 to 1/8- inches. They are athletic and usually dark in color, with an expanded appendage. The appendage allows the flea to pierce through skin in order to consume blood from its hosts through the epipharynx. Hind legs enable the fleas to switch from one host to another. The claw-like features of the legs give them a good grasp.
Instead of ordinary compound eyes, fleas posses eyespots with a single biconvex lens. Some flea species don’t even have flies at all. Their compressed bodies allow them to move freely through thick fur on the bodies of mammals. The hard encasing of shells prevents them from falling off in case of excessing scratching or shaking. The shell creates a form of friction with the hairs on the bodies of the animals, keeping them aboard. Imagine the amount of detailing one tiny little insect has!
Between 1735 and 1758, the Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician, Carl Linnaeus, classified all groups of insects based on their wing structure. “Aptera”, meaning wingless, includes insects such as spiders, woodlice, myriapods and of course fleas! It wasn’t until 1810 that scientists further broke down insects according to their mouthparts as well. This divided “Aptera” into Thysanura (silverfish), Anoplura (sucking lice) and Siphonaptera (fleas).
According to research reports and some fossil remnants, ancestors of Siphonaptera did bear wings. However, a complete metamorphosis of the evolving generations outgrew the nature of wings, leaving them flightless. Despite not having wings, the modern generations are blessed with extensive mouth parts which overrule any other deficiency.
Why do fleas exist?
We may consider fleas pests, but they do have a purpose on this planet. Apart from their fantastic design, fleas also partake in the process of nutrient recycling and contribute to the structure of the ecosystem. Feeding on decaying plant matter, dead insects, feces, and vegetable waste, flea larvae help in decomposing organic waste. With their saliva properties, they channel the nutrients produced back into the ecosystem for further vegetation. This only occurs when the fleas are yet to reach maturity. After which, fleas become parasitic in nature consuming solely on the blood of its host body, becoming very selective with their choice of hosts in terms of breeding and maturing.
Fleas may be pesky pests, but they came into this world long before mankind. Thanks to people like Robert Hooke, humans were enlightened that there is more to fleas than just a pest. Fleas are fascinating creatures and contribute to the ecosystem severely. Sorry pets, but we cannot wipe the flea species off the planet, but we can help you with flea prevention.