Pest Library: Fleas
Fleas are small flightless insects that form the order Siphonaptera. As external parasites of mammals and birds, they live by consuming the blood of their hosts. Adults are up to about 3 mm (0.12 in) long and usually brown. Bodies flattened sideways enable them to move through their host’s fur or feathers; strong claws prevent them from being dislodged. They lack wings, and have mouthparts adapted for piercing skin and sucking blood and hind legs adapted for jumping. The latter enable them to leap a distance of some 50 times their body length, a feat second only to jumps made by froghoppers. Larvae are worm-like with no limbs; they have chewing mouthparts and feed on organic debris.
Over 2,500 species of fleas have been described worldwide. The Siphonaptera are most closely related to the snow scorpionflies (Boreidae), placing them within the endopterygote insect order Mecoptera.
Fleas are holometabolous insects, going through the four lifecycle stages of egg, larva, pupa, and imago (adult). In most species, neither female nor male fleas are fully mature when they first emerge but must feed on blood before they become capable of reproduction. The first blood meal triggers the maturation of the ovaries in females and the dissolution of the testicular plug in males, and copulation soon follows. Some species breed all year round while others synchronise their activities with their hosts’ life cycles or with local environmental factors and climatic conditions. Flea populations consist of roughly 50% eggs, 35% larvae, 10% pupae, and 5% adults.
Fleas arose in the early Cretaceous, most likely as ectoparasites of mammals, before moving on to other groups including birds. Each species of flea is more or less a specialist on its host animal species: many species never breed on any other host, though some are less selective. Some families of fleas are exclusive to a single host group: for example, the Malacopsyllidae are found only on armadillos, the Ischnopsyllidae only on bats, and the Chimaeropsyllidae only on elephant shrews. The oriental rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis, is a vector of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium which causes bubonic plague. The disease was spread by rodents such as the black rat, which were bitten by fleas that then infected humans. Major outbreaks included the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death, both of which killed a sizeable fraction of the world’s population.
In many species, fleas are principally a nuisance to their hosts, causing an itching sensation which in turn causes the host to try to remove the pest by biting, pecking or scratching. Fleas are not simply a source of annoyance, however. Flea bites cause a slightly raised, swollen itching spot to form; this has a single puncture point at the centre, like a mosquito bite. Besides this, the eczematous itchy skin disease flea allergy dermatitis is common in many host species, including dogs and cats. The bites often appear in clusters or lines of two bites, and can remain itchy and inflamed for up to several weeks afterwards. Fleas can lead to hair loss as a result of frequent scratching and biting by the animal, and can cause anemia in extreme cases.
Fleas have a significant economic impact. In America alone, approximately $2.8 billion is spent annually on flea-related veterinary bills and another $1.6 billion annually for flea treatment with pet groomers. Four billion dollars is spent annually for prescription flea treatment and $348 million for flea pest control.
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Bitings Insects: Bed Bugs, Bird Lice, Cat Flea, House Mosquito, Human Head Lice, Kissing Bug, Pubic Lice and Thrips
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