Friday, May 25, 2012

Creature Feature: FLEAS.

Hooo boy. For those of you with cats and dogs out there, flea season has started in the northern hemisphere. Expect to see a lot more scratching than usual. Be prepared for vet visits and flea sprays/soaps. You've been warned.

That said, fleas (order Siphonoptera) are fascinating as creatures. Because of their prevalence on birds and mammals, there have been extensive studies done on fleas. They are found virtually everywhere, so there is no shortage of specimens. Roughly 2000 species have been identified, each of which has its favorite host. Yes, humans can have fleas, too. The ones that infest pets are in the genus Ctenocephalides.

As most of us who have furry friends have no doubt noticed, fleas are fast. They can jump up to 18cm vertically and 33cm horizontally - that's 1200-2200 times their own body length. They are slender, too, making them very aerodynamic. No matter how much of a nuisance they are, that's pretty impressive, especially for an insect.

Along with being fast, fleas are very hard to kill. They have evolved super tough, bristly exoskeletons. Remember, this is an animal designed to hang on while being scratched by an angry dog or cat. Even human fingertips can't squish these guys. The best ways to kill fleas are tape, wax, and somehow managing to catch the flea in your fingernails. Oh, and of course, flea removal products (which even then require killing at two stages in the life cycle). Did we mention that fleas can reproduce asexually? No? Now you know.

Fleas feed exclusively on blood. They seek warm-blooded animals like birds and mammals, like most hematophages prefer. Even as larvae, they eat the sanguine feces of the adult fleas, making one wonder how this vicious cycle got started. With over 2000 species, each one can pick on a very specific host. Cat fleas are different from dog fleas are different from human fleas, so no, your dog's fleas won't get to you.

It is usually very easy to tell whether your pet has fleas or not. They start scratching like crazy to the point where they may lose patches of hair. Basically, if your cat or dog starts acting abnormal and scratches a lot, fleas are probably to blame. In the worst-case scenarios, they may develop anemia. Still, if flea-crippling products do not suffice, please take your pet to the vet. It could be allergies or mange if it isn't fleas.

Of course, fleas are fairly popular in movies and TV...mostly as nuisances. They are often imagined as having little, anthropomorphized populations on dogs or cats. Some, like P.T. Flea from A Bug's Life  or The Flea from Los Luchadores, have more important roles than chewing on a dog's rear. Like it or not, fleas do impact human life quite a bit, and they're probably here to stay.

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