Siphonaptera (fleas)

Siphonaptera (flea) fast facts

  • Very small, wingless, laterally compressed.
  • Adults ectoparasites of warm-bodied animals.
  • Hind legs specialised for jumping.
  • Eyes may or may not be present.
  • Piercing/sucking mouthparts.
  • Larvae vermiform (worm-like).
  • Pupae in silk cocoons.
  • About 2600 species worldwide, over 260 in Europe, about 62 in British Isles.
  • All species have a similar body form

Flea eggs

Flea eggs are white. Each female can produce hundreds of eggs.

Flea larva

Pulex irritans larva, human flea larva

The flea larva (see the drawing above and photograph below) is a 13 segmented eyeless, legless, worm-like grub (similar to some fly larvae) living on bodies, hairs, feathers, nests, bedding, etc. depending on the species. It scavenges on debris, dried blood and adult flea excrement which contains undigested blood. It pupates in a silk cocoon (see the photograph below) for around 2 weeks before hatching into an adult.

Ctenophalides felis, cat flea larva

Adult fleas

Pulex irritans, human flea, adult

above Pulex irritans, the human flea

All adult fleas (see photographs and drawings above and below) are parasites of warm blooded animals. Their flat shape and backwardly pointing spines (see below) make it easy for them to move through hair and feathers. The largest living flea is 12 mm long, and found on the North American mountain beaver. The largest fossil flea was 20.6 mm long and may have lived on a feathered dinosaur.

The adult is brown/black, shiny and wingless. The hind pair of legs store energy in special pads of resilin protein. The thoracic muscles compress the resilin pad, and when the muscles relax the resilin springs back to its original size releasing energy which is transmitted to the rear legs and the flea jumps. The mouthparts are adapted for blood sucking.

Adult fleas can detect smells and carbon dioxide given off by animals. The female needs a blood meal before she can produce eggs.

Fleas are not, or only rarely, found in nomadic animals such as the gorilla, as the larva need a safe place to live and grow, and this is usually found in the place where the host sleeps. It is believed that when man was nomadic and naked he had no fleas. It was only when he settled in caves and started to dress that fleas could breed and use him as a host.

Ctenophalides felis, the cat flea

Family Pulicidae (common fleas)

There are about 200 species worldwide and all feed on mammalian blood. Some are unspecialised and can live on as many as 30 different mammal species.

The eggs. Females lay their eggs as they feed. and the eggs drop into the host's nest, burrow or bedding. The eggs are pearly white, oval and about 0.5 mm long. 4 - 8 eggs are laid after each blood meal. A female can lay several hundred in her lifetime

The larvae are pale, legless, and worm-like grubs with biting jaws which usually live for 2 -3 weeks.

They are about 1.5 mm long when they first hatch; growing to around 5 mm before they pupate. See the human flea, Pulex irritans larva and the dog and cat flea larvae above. They don't have eyes, but they do have jaws and backwardly-facing bristles.

The larva eats partly digested blood in the faeces of the adult fleas, particles in the host's faeces, and any other food particles.

The pupa can lie dormant until they are disturbed. So it is possible to move into a house that has been empty for months and suddenly find adult fleas everywhere.

This behaviour is of great advantage to the fleas, as it would die of starvation if it had hatched out in an empty house. Particles of debris stick to the silken cocoon of the pupa and hide it - see the cat flea pupa below.

The pupa are triggered to hatch into adults by vibration and body heat. This usually signals the return of the host to its sleeping area or den.

Adult flea bites can cause allergic reactions and discomfort, and the flea can be host to parasites that it passes on to its host. For example bubonic plague (Black Death) was passed to humans in bites from the rat flea, see below for more disease transmitted by fleas. The adults range in size from 1 - 8 mm long. Both males and females suck blood.

Pulex irritans human flea

Pulex irritans above, drinks human blood and is commonly known as the human flea. It has the typical flea body being compressed sideways chestnut brown in colour and shiny. The maxillary palps are often mistaken for antenna but the true antennae are minute and rest in grooves. Note the rear pair of legs which are modified for jumping. P. irritans can jump more than 200 times its own height. Like all fleas the body has numerous backward-pointing spines and combs. These are used in identifying the different species, and they also make the animal difficult to remove from hair. Even after you have caught your flea killing it is not so easy as the exoskeleton is hard.

Lifecycle. The female lays from 8 - 12 oval, smooth, white and sticky eggs at a time. They stick to floorboards, furniture and clothes. Depending on temperature, these hatch in 4 - 11 days. The larvae (see above) are white at first, but change to a reddish colour. These eat for around 2 weeks before making a pale silky cocoon in which to pupate. In another 2 weeks, if conditions are favourable, the adults hatch out. In humans the bite of a flea is recognised as a number of small dark red spots surrounded by an area of pale coloured skin.

Pulex irritans was once the most common flea found on humans, and it also lives on pigs, goats, foxes and badgers. It can jump 30 cm.

Human fleas first showed up in Europe around 1000 years ago. It is believed that the Vikings caught them when they visited N. America, then transported them to Greenland, and then to Europe.

Humans can be parasitized by the dog, cat and rat fleas.

Today cat (Ctenocephalides felis, see adult, pupa and larva above) and dog (C. canis below) fleas are the most common fleas to bite humans. And in North America the cat flea is the most common flea to bite cats, dogs and humans. The cat flea is also found on opossums, raccoons, kangaroos and birds.

The female cat flea can lay over 20 eggs a day at an average rate of 1 an hour. The cat flea can stay in its cocoon for as little as a day or over a year depending on conditions.

Ctenophalides felis, cat flea pupa

The cat flea is one of the most powerful jumpers and can reach a height of 34 cm. This is the equivalent of a human jumping 600 feet! Though, of course it is the cross-sectional area and small size of the flea as well as the resilin pad that makes this possible.

The dog flea adult is just 2 - 3 mm long. Dog and cat fleas can carry a tapeworm (Dipylidium caninum) that can infect dogs, cats and humans. The fleas' larva (see below) are infected with tapeworm eggs, the dog swallows the adult flea while grooming and the tapeworm now infects the dog.

Below is a drawing of a dog flea larva, Ctenocephalides canis.

Does your dog/cat have fleas?

Ctenocephalides canis, dog flea larva

Usually the first sign that your dog or cat has fleas - apart from scratching - is finding little dark specks of flea faeces in their hair. Around the base of the tail and the neck are places fleas like to live. The dark specks are easily seen in light hair. In dark-haired dogs you can clean the brush or comb over a piece of white paper. If you find dark specks, put a drop of water on them. If they dissolve into a reddish brown colour they are flea faeces, as the faeces are largely composed of blood.

When you treat your dog or cat for fleas it is only the adult stage that the treatment kills. To kill all the fleas in your house you must continue the treatment until all the eggs have hatched into larvae, the larvae have fed and pupated and the adults have hatched out and finally only once the adult flea has had a blood meal of the treated dog or cat will the poison in the treatment kill the flea. And in truth it doesn't even kill the flea, it just prevents it from reproducing!

So usually this means continual treatment of pets as they can easily pick up fleas from untreated pets or wild animals. Flea infestations in wild animals can be massive. 5000 fleas have been found in a single bird's nest, and over 7000 have been removed from a single hedgehog.

Diseases transmitted by fleas

The largest of British fleas is the mole flea, Hystricopsylla talpae.

The hedgehog flea, Archaeopsylla erinacei, rarely lives on man or other mammals.

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.

A. de Morgan

How insects breathe

flea trachea, breathing process

Unlike our blood insect blood rarely has any special substances, such as haemoglobin, for absorbing oxygen, and the blood plays only a minor part in the breathing process.

Oxygen in carried directly to the tissues through branching tubes called trachea, which are found in all but the most primitive of insects, and some very specialised internal parasites. A trachea is a flexible tube which branches into smaller tubes called tracheoles (see the drawing of a flea showing the trachea and spiracles on the right).

The tracheal opening to the exterior is called a spiracle. These usually run down the sides of the insect body, and are most easily seen in a large caterpillar. In small insects diffusion through the tracheoles is sufficient to supply their needs. In larger insects abdominal pumping is necessary. This can be seen by watching a stationary insect, especially a bumblebee, its abdomen will pulsate.

The spiracles act as valves to the outside, and most can be partly or completely closed. This also helps to reduce water loss from the body.

Carbon dioxide escapes through the exoskeleton. Some insects living in water have a siphon, or breathing tube, (Water stick insect, Water scorpion), others have gills, (damsel fly nymphs, may fly nymphs), and others hold a bubble of water, (water beetles).