The most distinctive thing about the tiny flea is its superpowered jumping ability. These minuscule insects can leap 50-100 times their own body length – the equivalent of a human being jumping hundreds of meters in the air!
The flea’s ability to jump so far is integral to its survival, as they must find their way onto an (often moving) animal in order to feed and breed. Their ability to launch themselves over long distances, therefore, makes it far easier for them to find a host.
This incredible athletic skill is unrivaled in the rest of the animal kingdom, but how do they do it? To launch their tiny bodies with over such distances and at such speeds, fleas must generate (and implement) huge amounts of power.
The mechanisms behind this considerable feat have confused scientists for years. Until recently, that is! Research from the University of Cambridge has finally shed some long-awaited light on the situation and is clearing up a decades-old mystery: how do fleas jump?
Historically, there have been two main mysteries surrounding the flea jump; how they generate enough power to jump such incredible distances, and how they harness this awesome energy.
The flea jump: key facts
Why do fleas jump?
Why are fleas such keen jumpers? The answer is simple; fleas can only breed and (in the case of lady fleas) lay eggs after they’ve had a blood meal. What’s more, newly-hatched fleas must feed within a few hours to survive. Finding their way onto a suitable host is, therefore, crucial. The flea’s mighty jump allows these tiny insects to effectively find their way into the fur of passing animals, where they can set up home.
How high can a flea jump?
The average height of a flea jump varies from species to species. The cat flea (the most commonly found flea in North America) can jump as high as 13 cm, while the dog flea can leap up to 15 cm in one bounce.
How far can a flea jump?
Fleas can jump incredible distances relative to their size and can travel up to 50 cm in one leap.
How do fleas jump?
In their mission to understand the unique mechanisms behind the flea’s famous jump, scientists have puzzled long and hard over two main questions. The first is: how do fleas generate the colossal amount of power required to fuel that spectacular leap?
The answer to that one was uncovered in 1967 when research scientist Henry Bennet-Clark discovered that fleas use a pad of elastic protein called resilin to launch their leap. This unique protein can be squashed up like a tensed spring, storing huge amounts of energy as it does so. This rubbery protein is compressed as the flea prepares to jump and releases massive amounts of energy when it recoils, unleashing a burst of power that fires the flea up into the air.
So, mystery solved, right? Not quite. Although the question of how fleas generate their power had been answered, scientists were still scratching their heads over how fleas actually utilize that power.
The answer to the question of how fleas implement the energy stored in their resilin pads eluded scientists for years. However, the aforementioned Cambridge research has finally given us the answer!
Using high-speed recording equipment, researchers at the university were able to capture unique and clear footage of jumping fleas. By analyzing the stills of the film, the researches gained a brand-new insight and understanding of how fleas launch themselves into the air.
They found that, basically, fleas can transmit the awesome power stored in their resilin pads through their legs as they jump. The insects were seen to leap from the very tips of their toes (tarsus), pushing down through their shins (tibia) as they did so. In most of the recorded jumps, the flea’s knee (trochanter) was also in contact with the ground at the point of push-off. However, the researchers concluded that, although the knees appeared to play a part in the launching of the flea, they are not, in fact, required for a successful jump. Upon closer inspection of the movies, the scientists were able to see that all the fleas accelerated in exactly the same way, regardless of whether they were using their knees during liftoff or not.
Microscopic images taken of the bugs also showed that, whereas, both the toes and shins of fleas are covered in spiny structures, their knees were bald. This suggests that, while the toes and shins are likely used to grip and help launch the flea, the knees are unlikely to play an essential role in the process.
While the mystery of how fleas fuel and execute their phenomenal jump has been cleared up, there is plenty more we don’t know about how these tiny insects operate. So, what’s next for the team at Cambridge? The next question the researchers hope to tackle is how fleas control their jumps to allow them to land with such accuracy and precision in the coats of their hosts.
The mystery of how fleas power and implement their awesome jumps has baffled scientists for years. However, new research has shed light on the mechanisms behind the flea’s mighty leap like never before! Scientists at the University of Cambridge have successfully obtained a series of film images of flea jumps, allowing for unique and in-depth analysis into the mechanisms of that impressive jump. By storing power in an elastic protein called resilin, fleas are able to generate a huge amount of energy required for them to jump so far. This energy is transferred through the shins and toes of the flea, allowing them to launch themselves over huge distances with a single spring!