Skip to main content

Fleas Taxonomy & Phylogeny

The Siphonaptera, or fleas, are one of the major groups of blood-sucking insects. They belong to holometabolic insects, as like as Diptera, Lepidoptera, etc. Fleas form a separate well-differentiated order, although phylogenetically they are regarded to be closer to Diptera and Mecoptera. At present approximately 2000 species and subspecies of fleas are known. Adult fleas are obligatory hematophages parasitising warm-blooded animals (mammals and birds). Wormlike free-living legless flea larva develops in the litter of host’s nest. The majority of fleas are periodically attacking burrow or nest- dwelling parasites, capable have long time to present in host’s fur, unlike free blood-suckers, such as, for example, Diptera or some bugs.

Fleas are secondarily wingless insects. Their body is flattened on the sides and is represented by 3 major parts, or tagma: head, thorax, abdomen. Thorax of fleas is provided with three pairs of legs, the hind legs are the longest. The shape of the head, the flat body shapes and prehensile claws of legs help it to move easily through host’s wool. Length of jump some flea species attains 32 cm, average body length being from 1 to 5 mm. Colour of flea body may be light yellow, yellowish black, brown black or jet-black.

Fleas are widely spread on all continents, Antarctica included. They occur on hosts and in their nests in all types of habitats from the equatorial deserts and tropical rainforests to the northernmost regions of Arctic tundra. In general in Eurasia as in other continents the largest number of species and genera of fleas occur in several regions with temperate subtropical climate and predominance of mountain landscapes. The most numerous flea fauna is known for Eurasia.

Representatives of the order are known as vectors of plague microbes, murine typhus rickettsiae and some other pathogens. The great practical significance of fleas determines the necessity to study their fauna for the entire world and separate regions and to elaborate of systematics of the order. Epidemiological significance of fleas determined the great interest of specialists from different countries of the world.

The world fauna of this relatively small insect order had been mainly studied by the 1970s-1980s. However classification and phylogeny of the order has not been elaborated completely. No extensive reviews on the fauna of the former Soviet Union and the USA have been published yet. The elaboration of the natural system of the order, however, is complicated because all fleas are highly specialised parasites. Only a few specimens of fossil fleas from Eocene Baltic and Miocene Dominican amber are currently known. In their characteristics they are nearly identical to the recent forms. The existed classifications of the fleas are based on characters taken separately, without the analysis of their evolutionary relationships.

Characteristics of Siphonaptera

The most distinctive feature of fleas is flattened wingless body with legs armed by long claws. The third pair of the legs is the longest. They are the principal jumping organs.
Other derived characteristics of fleas are:
The head capsule of fleas is very modified. It is lucked real suture dividing head on front, clypeus and etc. It is high, narrow and cuneate.
The propleurosternum of thorax covers the head from below to the peristomal aperture, as result of which it is immobile.
There is one mobile conjunction between closely connected head and prothorax on the one hand and meso- and metathorax on the other hand.
The antennae of fleas usually are in antennal fossae. The antennal fossa divides the head into anterior and posterior parts.
The ovate abdomen of the adult flea includes 10 segments. The genital apparatus of male fleas consists of the aedeagus, modified tergites and sternites of the 8th and 9th abdominal segments and claspers. The aedeagus and claspers (after R.Snodgrass) derive from primary phallic lobe. The modified tergites and sternites of fleas belong to abdominal segments 7-9.