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Have you got fleas?

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Mark Easton | 08:17 UK time, Monday, 4 August 2008

Another mild, damp summer - just the weather for fleas. Last year the UK saw record numbers of "siphonaptera" according to environmental health officers and this year looks likely to see a similar story.

So, Map of the Week this week is actually four maps looking at the UK from the flea viewpoint.

Map showing recordings of fleas in Britain and Ireland

There are about 60 species of flea in Britain and thanks to the extraordinary life work of Bob George, a former RAF pilot and school teacher who began recording fleas in about 1950, naturalists now have a much more profound understanding of this wingless and largely friendless insect.

Bob initiated the national flea recording scheme in 1964 and so these maps reflect almost half a century of new data but also many historic records including those of the natural historian Miriam Rothschild.

According to Bob's "Atlas of the Fleas of Britain and Ireland", the human flea (Pulex irritans) is considered to be of New World origin. "It is possible that this species may have originated in South America, associated with guinea pigs", he writes. "Pulex irritans appears to have spread with humans around the world during the post-glacial period.

There is evidence of its presence at Viking settlements in Dublin and York."

The human flea is in decline apparently, a victim of the vacuum cleaner and insecticides.

The cat flea, however, seems in good health and is Britain's most common flea. Dog fleas are rarer and are almost unknown in Scotland. If a pooch has fleas north of the border, they are almost certainly cat fleas.

Our final map shows recordings of Brtain's rarest flea: the Manx shearwater flea. You will need to look closely for the only dot - in the Inner Hebrides off the West coast of Scotland. The Manx shearwater flea is only found at high altitudes (650 m and above) and has only been collected from shearwater nest burrows on the mountain of Hallival on Rum.

Fleas can jump up to 150 times the length of their bodies, equivalent to a person jumping about 300 metres. Their acceleration is equivalent to 50 times that of the space shuttle during lift off.

According to the Health Protection Agency, fleas are carriers of the cat and dog tapeworm, which may infect humans. Apart from this there is no disease transmitted by fleas in the UK (although they are still an important carrier of plague in many parts of the world).

If you are interested in the distribution of animals, birds and insects in the UK, go to the National Biodiversity Network Gateway where you can take advantage of a wealth of wildlife data to make your own maps. You could also get involved with adding dots to maps through involvement with a recording scheme - visit the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Biological Records Centre to find out more.


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