Fleas are very tiny wingless insects that, at first, look like specks of dust. They’re part of the Siphonaptera insect order. This is actually a Greek word – and the suffix aptera means wingless. This already indicates that fleas, in fact, don’t have wings.
Fleas are most commonly black or dark brown and grow to be about 0.1 in. (0.25 cm) in length. Nearly all ectoparasites of mammals don’t have functional wings and, therefore, can’t fly, including fleas. Yet, fleas have flat bodies and strong legs that make them excellent jumpers.
Fleas With Wings: Ancient Ancestors
Modern fleas are wingless, flightless creatures. But, scientists believe that these tiny bugs descended from winged ancestors.
Evidence points to fleas belonging to the order Mecoptera (scorpionflies). The ancient ancestors of fleas are believed to belong to the Boreidae (snow scorpionfly) family. These were the species of fleas with wings.
Fleas acted as parasites on ancient vertebrates. These insects have been parasitizing mammals for sixty million years. Over the course of evolution, both flight and wings became unnecessary for these creatures. This led to the free-living “pre-fleas” transforming into the parasitic fleas we know and loathe. During the same time, their habitats became the burrows of their mammal hosts. This is how fleas became wingless and flightless.
What Kind of Environment Do Fleas Prefer?
Warm climates are the perfect habitat for fleas. These insects are unable to endure extremely hot or extremely cold weather conditions.
They’re attracted to any warm-blooded animal and you’ll often find them in pant legs, blankets, and/or shoes. Fleas also thrive in damp places with little light, like in crevices or under furniture.
Do Fleas Have Wings?
Fleas don’t have wings. They use their legs to move around. Their tiny but powerful hind legs can push them up to 50 times their own height. This means that fleas can jump up to 7 in. (17.7 cm) vertically and up to 13 in. (33 cm) horizontally, which might sometimes seem like they’re flying.
In addition to their strong hind legs, they also have a large trochanteral depressor muscle in their thorax. It’s a pad of protein, known as resilin that is elastic in nature. It provides the tiny bugs with a kind of compressed springboard that allows the flea to jump upwards or forwards when it wants to move from one place to another. This also enables them to land on the bodies of mammals, including your pets or yourself.
Their ability to jump and move determines how far they can spread as they attach themselves to their chosen hosts. Interestingly, fleas change direction every time they jump. Even though they can jump really high, they prefer to stay nestled and warm in the fur or on the skin of their host.
Do Fleas Fly?
Nowadays, you won’t see fleas with wings. The ancestors of the modern flea did have wings, but that trait vanished over time.
Fleas don’t even need wings. They’re equipped and efficient enough to move from one location to another by jumping and clinging to their hosts. A female adult flea sticks to its host and remains there throughout her life, feeding on their blood and laying around 100 eggs per day.
Fleas are dangerous creatures since they can spread life-threatening diseases. They travel easily from one place to another, so also quickly spread diseases along the way. For example, fleas were responsible for the spread of the Bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century.
So, the correct answer to this question would be “No.” They don’t fly since they lost their wings over the course of evolution. But their flying structures were altered and incorporated into an amazing jumping mechanism. In fact, fleas are such good jumpers that if they were human-sized athletes taking part in the long jump in the Olympics, they’d break the world record by a whopping 970 ft. (295.6 m).
How Do Fleas Travel Long Distances?
Because of their flightlessness, fleas depend on their hosts to move from one place to another. Their hosts travel large distances, enabling fleas to traverse different locations. Fleas often hitchhike on mammals like rodents (rats and mice). They also travel to different locations on the shoes and socks worn by humans. In short, fleas seek to thrive wherever the hosts take them.
Now you know that fleas are wingless insects that can’t fly. While they can’t fly, they are very good jumpers and often move around by clinging to the bodies of their hosts. So, even though fleas don’t have wings, they’re able to move efficiently and travel long distances.
The next time you marvel at how fleas get from one place to another so quickly, remember that they jumping and hitchhiking on their hosts is their mode of transportation.