2008.10.15 Picking fleas off Sam

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

If you travel the same news routes followed by me, you already know about this year’s Ig Nobel awards. Each year, researchers are “honored” for their odd research.

The ceremony is actually closer to dishonoring. The presenters are making fun of how some scientists are spending their research time.

For example, a couple of people in California proved mathematically that heaps of string or hair or other objects will almost invariably end up in a tangle of knots.

There was some drama in this year’s awards, and not only in the opening ceremony when a sword was pulled from a man’s throat (a winner from the previous year studied the side effects of sword swallowing). There was also some competing research.

Three scientists from the northeast U.S. discovered that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide; a team of researchers in Taiwan proved it isn’t, nor is Pepsi-Cola.

I haven’t had any experience with this use of cola, nor is my hair long enough to tangle overnight, nor have I had any experience with armadillos messing up my archeological dig site, etc.

No, it was the flea study that caught my attention and had some personal meaning.

A pair of French scientists from Toulouse discovered that fleas who live on dogs can jump higher than fleas who live on cats.

This study brought back warm, fuzzy memories of my sister’s weird dog, Sam, who joined our family in the 1960s as a gift from Lenny Dietrich. What a legacy that dog left behind.

Although the dog officially belonged to Diane, I think brother Dan and I were much closer to Sam. I wonder how many times Diane cleaned up the living room carpet after Sam suddenly choked up a dead bird that didn’t sit right with his usually strong stomach. How many fleas did Diane remove from his body?

I actually look back with fondness to Sam’s flea-ridden condition. I recall him lying asleep on my bed, his leg twitching  as he dreamed. Suddenly all four legs would break into an unconscious  gallop as his dream carried him after a mailman or a cat. He certainly didn’t have to run fast to subdue a dead bird.

As he lay there in repose, every now and then a flea would run across his spotted belly where the hair grew thin. I would try to capture the annoying little pest and crush it between fingernails. They’re not easy to subdue, and more often than not, the little fellow would jump away, only to eventually reunite with Sam.

The French study might have arose from a similar situation. Perhaps Marie-Christine Cadiergues watched fleas jump from her sleeping mutt and wondered if they were as good as those jumping from her sleeping cat.

Why study this stuff? Why not? I’ve learned from it. When I saw the title of the study, I figured there must be something in dog blood to give a flea a bigger boost. Or maybe it’s easier to get good footing on a dog.

Little did I know that dog fleas and cat fleas are two different beasts. I thought they were one and the same.

The cat flea jump averages 7.8 inches in distance while dog fleas average 12 inches. The record jump recorded was 19.6 inches. Cat fleas average 5.2 inches in height and dogs average 6 inches, so you can see there’s a significant difference. The highest jump observed was 9.8 inches.

I think I saw better off Sam, but it’s been many years and I never recorded my observations.

I’ve also learned that humans are much more likely to be bitten by cat fleas. I’ve learned that fleas generally just walk around, but when they’re in search of a host, they’ll jump butt-first and grab onto the host much like a Velco dart.

Cadiergues completed her research in 2000 and four years later Boris Krasnov and his Israeli team went much, much further. They studied eight different species of desert flea and compared jumping ability.

They even came up with a conclusion: Fleas that live on sandy ground are better jumpers than those living on rocky ground.

Sam spent a lot of time on a human’s bed and his fleas did just fine. I’m itching all over just writing about this topic, so let’s move on to more Ig Nobel research: the puzzle solving abilities of slime mold.

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