Nosopsyllus fasciatusnorthern rat flea

Last updated:

Geographic Range

Although northern rat fleas (Nosopsyllus fasciatus) are native to Europe, they are commonly found worldwide due to the commensal relationship of their rodent hosts to humans. The first northern rat fleas identified in the United States were found in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky and Ames, Iowa before 1900 and quickly spread to ports and large cities. They are more common in the northern United States and although they can still be found in the south, the populations are significantly lower. In warm temperate regions N. fasciatus together with Xenopsylla cheopis make up the majority of the flea population on rats. (Chick and Martin, 1911; Crooks, et al., 2004; Pratt and Good, 1954)

Habitat

Since N. fasciatus is an obligate nidiculous parasite on vertebrates, its habitat is determined by the needs of its host. This flea is not host specific and when given the opportunity will jump to other nearby animals. Nosophsyllus fasciatus is usually found on rats but will sometimes transfer to other rodent species or small vertebrates. When on rat hosts adult fleas prefer to feed on the sacral and pelvic regions and rarely move towards the anterior of the rat. The larvae live in the nests of their hosts but are sometimes found with the adult fleas in the host’s fur for feeding. While off the host, both the larva and adult survive best in slightly damp piles of rubbish where it is cool and humid. (Crooks, et al., 2004; Iqbal and Humphries, 1982; Molyneux, 1967; Strickland, 1914)

Physical Description

Nosophsyllus fasciatus has a holometabolous life cycle, including the stages of egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The eggs are small (about 0.6 mm), white, translucent, and slightly sticky. Active larvae are similar to small caterpillars with 13 segments. Pupae are usually, but not always, inside of a sticky cocoon made by the larvae. (Strickland, 1914)

Adult N. fasciatus range from 1 to 9 mm in length. They are laterally flattened, have backward-pointing bristles on their bodies, and usually have two sets of ctenidia (genal combs on the head and pronotal combs on the first thoracic segment). All of these features allow the flea to move around rapidly in fur in a forward direction but prevent it from moving backwards which helps prevent the host from removing it. Fleas are built for jumping long distances with powerful rear legs, pleural arch (with the energy efficient elastic protein resilin), and skeletal locking mechanism. Fleas have simple eyes (ocelli), short antennae that lie in grooves on their heads, and seven abdominal segments of which the last three have developed into reproductive organs. Fleas are sexually dimorphic. Males are distinguished by their long penis rods coiled within the abdomen. Females can be identified by their lack of penis rods and the presence of a kidney shaped organ called the spermatheca which stores sperm from the male. Nosophsyllus fasciatus is unique because in females, the posterior ridge of the seventh sternite has a sinuous outline and in males the movable finger of the clasper is planoconvex, short, and broad. Adult rat fleas are distinct because members of their genus have well-developed eyes and pronotal combs. (Askew, 1971; O'Toole, 1995)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes shaped differently
  • Range length
    1 to 9 mm
    0.04 to 0.35 in

Development

Like all fleas, N. fasciatus has a holometabolous life cycle and undergoes metamorphosis. External conditions determine when the eggs hatch, and they will no longer be viable if hatching is significantly delayed. The eggs tolerate temperatures of 5 to 29 degrees Celsius, and under these optimal conditions will hatch after 7 days. The larvae survive best in dark areas with low temperature, high humidity, and rubbish in which they can hide. The larval stage lasts 60 days on average. They spend about 17 days developing in the pupal state and emerge at slightly different stages of maturity depending on the lifestyle and diet of the larvae. The fleas can remain in the pupal stage for many months and will not emerge at low temperatures. Total development from egg to adult averages 84 days. (Askew, 1971; Iqbal and Humphries, 1970; Rothschild and Ford, 1973; Strickland, 1914)

Reproduction

Fleas reproduce sexually, and will mate year round. They mate randomly when there is accidental contact between males and females after feeding on the host. Currently there are no known methods for finding mates, mating rituals, or mate defense. (Iqbal and Humphries, 1970)

In fleas, mating occurs soon after the adults emerge from the pupal stage. Copulation usually takes place off of the host, and appears to happen accidentally when fleas of the opposite sex come into contact with each other. The male clasps the female with his antennae and they join genitals for two to three hours. A contact-chemical from the females stimulates receptors in the male maxillary palps. (Iqbal and Humphries, 1974)

There has been much debate about whether or not northern rat fleas need to take a blood meal before mating. Iqbal and Humphries observed that mating only took place if both sexes had fed. They hypothesized that mating was triggered by the rise in temperature experienced while on the host and found that mating occurred between unfed fleas at 30°C to 35°C or at room temperature in fleas that had previously been exposed to such temperatures. Rothschild and Ford concluded that mating behavior can differ based on strain and that this difference may be due to the different hosts used to raise the fleas, different rearing techniques, or the quality or amount of food they had access to. (Iqbal and Humphries, 1970; Rothschild and Ford, 1973)

  • Breeding interval
    Nosophsyllus fasciatus may breed many times a year, depending on environmental conditions and lifespan.
  • Breeding season
    Nosophsyllus fasciatus may breed year round.

Females lay eggs off of the host after a bloodmeal and leave them to develop freely. There is no parental care. (; O'Toole, 1995; Russell, 1913)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement

Lifespan/Longevity

When fed regularly on blood northern rat fleas are healthy and able to reproduce continuously for months, but if the flea does not have constant access to food, then its survival depends on its environment, especially the presence of rubbish to hide in. With sufficient rubbish at 60° F and 70% humidity fleas that are not well-fed can live for 17 months or longer, but at 70° F and 45% humidity they will only live about 4 months. Without rubbish their lifespan is significantly shorter and not affected by temperature or humidity. (Strickland, 1914)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    4 to 17 months
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    17 months

Behavior

Fleas are not social animals and only live near each other in order to have access to the host and its nest. All fleas are powerful jumpers and use this ability to land on their hosts. When fully gorged a flea is able to jump about three inches and when empty about four inches. (Rothschild and Ford, 1973; Strickland, 1914)

Home Range

The rat flea does not stray from the nest of its host.

Communication and Perception

Because fleas have very reduced eyes, they rely on two main sensory organs. The first is their antennae which they use to detect air currents, vibrations, touch, and smells. The second organ is the pygidium, a plate covered with hairs at the back of the ninth abdominal segment. It is used to sense air currents which aid in locating a host. There are two steps to host perception: getting to the host, and deciding whether to stay on the host once it has landed. Olfactory senses likely allow the flea to sense the host from a distance. Host body temperature is the determining factor in the flea’s decision to leave the host because if it falls below normal, the flea will think the host is dead. (Iqbal, 1974; Russell, 1913)

Food Habits

Flea larvae are usually nidicolous parasites, living in the nest of the host and feeding on feces of adult fleas which contain blood that has not been completely digested. The larvae of northern rat fleas, however, also use their mandibles to attach themselves to the pygidial (anal) area of adult fleas so that it can feed directly on the feces of the adults, and if an adult flea is injured the larvae will attack the adult. One experiment showed that when given the choice between rat feces and dried blood the larvae do not prefer one over the other. Northern rat fleas will feed on humans and small animals like rabbits and mice given the opportunity, however, fleas that feed on hosts other than rats are not able to lay eggs. (Chick and Martin, 1911; Molyneux, 1967; Strickland, 1914)

Adult fleas have specialized sucking mouthparts that they use to feed on the host's blood. These include a pair of serrated laciniae to penetrate the skin and a single epipharynx to suck up the blood. Once the blood enters the flea's digestive tract it enters the proventriculus, an area of the gut that has sclerotized teeth to break up individual blood cells. (Iqbal and Humphries, 1982; Russell, 1913)

Nosophsyllus fasciatus will stay on its host and feed for two to three hours, because although it has the ability to take a full meal in ten minutes, finding a suitable blood vessel (the larger the better) and being disturbed by host activity prolong feeding. Females always take larger bloodmeals than males (about nine times more) because they excrete more blood after feeding and need to provide nutrients for eggs. On rats, fleas prefer to feed on the sacral and pelvic regions and rarely move towards the anterior of the rat. To feed, fleas insert their serrated laciniae into the host’s skin. (Iqbal and Humphries, 1982)

  • Animal Foods
  • blood

Predation

Many flea species such as cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis felis) have insect predators including ants, beetles, and nematodes. Nosophsyllus fasciatus likely has similar predators, though specific species have not been identified. (Rust, 1997)

Ecosystem Roles

Nosophsyllus fasciatus is a parasite of rodents and other mammals, including humans, and most importantly, is a disease vector. Trypanosoma lewisi is one parasite transmitted by northern rat fleas. Rat hosts can be infected by eating the blood or organs of other infected rats, by eating their own fleas that have fed on an infected rat, or by being bitten by an infected flea (most common). The bacteria Salmonella enteritidis is also spread by northern rat fleas. The infected fleas have a shortened lifespan, but are more efficient vectors than other vector species such as Xenopsyllus cheopis. Humans can contract salmonella by being bitten by infected fleas or by eating food contaminated with feces from infected fleas. (Eskey, et al., 1949; Minchin and Thomson, 1911)

Species Used as Host

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Northern rat fleas have no positive economic importance for humans.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Athough N. fasciatus uses rats as primary hosts, it also feeds on humans when necessary. In one experiment, Chick and Martin starved northern rat fleas and then allowed them to sit on either humans or rats, both of which they feed on readily. Some, but not all, human subjects used in the experiment experienced irritation and swelling from the flea bites. It is highly likely then that fleas able to transfer diseases in rodents can also transfer them to humans when they feed. Like Xenopsylla cheopis, northern rat fleas can also be vectors of Yersinia pestis, or plague. Other human diseases this species can spread include salmonella caused by Salmonella enteritidis and sleeping sickness caused by Trypanosoma lewisi. (Askew, 1971; Chick and Martin, 1911)

Conservation Status

Northern rat fleas are not endangered in any way and have no special conservation status. Their host populations are abundant and widespread, and thus the species likely has little risk of endangerment.

Other Comments

Nosophsyllus fasciatus is commonly known as rat fleas or European rat fleas.

Contributors

Susan Palazzo (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Heidi Liere (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, John Marino (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Barry OConnor (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

causes disease in humans

an animal which directly causes disease in humans. For example, diseases caused by infection of filarial nematodes (elephantiasis and river blindness).

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

infrared/heat

(as keyword in perception channel section) This animal has a special ability to detect heat from other organisms in its environment.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body

introduced

referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

metamorphosis

A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

parasite

an organism that obtains nutrients from other organisms in a harmful way that doesn't cause immediate death

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

saltatorial

specialized for leaping or bounding locomotion; jumps or hops.

sanguivore

an animal that mainly eats blood

semelparous

offspring are all produced in a single group (litter, clutch, etc.), after which the parent usually dies. Semelparous organisms often only live through a single season/year (or other periodic change in conditions) but may live for many seasons. In both cases reproduction occurs as a single investment of energy in offspring, with no future chance for investment in reproduction.

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

References

Askew, R. 1971. Parasitic Insects. New York: American Elsevier Publishing Company, Inc..

Chick, H., C. Martin. 1911. The Fleas Common on Rats in Different Parts of the World and the Readiness with Which They Bite Man. The Journal of Hygiene, 11 (1): 122-136.

Crooks, K., D. Garcelon, C. Scott, J. Depue, J. Wilcox, R. Kimsey, D. van Vuren. 2004. Ectoparasites of a Threatened Insular Endemic Mammalian Carnivore: The Island Spotted Skunk. American Midland Naturalist, 151 (1): 35-41.

Eskey, C., F. Prince, F. Fuller. 1949. Transmission of Salmonella enteritidis by the Rat Fleas Xenopsylla cheopis and Nosopsyllus fasciatus. Public Health Reports, 64 (30): 933-941.

Iqbal, Q. 1974. Host Finding Behavior of the Rat Flea Nosopsyllus fasciatus. Biologia, 20 (2): 147-150.

Iqbal, Q., D. Humphries. 1982. Feeding Behavior of the rat Flea Nosopsyllus fasciatus. Pakistan Journal of Zoology, 14 (1): 71-74.

Iqbal, Q., D. Humphries. 1974. The Mating Behavior of the rat Flea Nosopsyllus fasciatus. Pakistan Journal of Zoology, 6 (1-2): 163-174.

Iqbal, Q., D. Humphries. 1970. Temperature as a Critical Factor in the Mating Behavior of the Rat Flea Nosopsyllus fasciatus. Parasitology, 61 (3): 375-380.

Minchin, E., J. Thomson. 1911. The Transmission of Trypanosoma Lewisi by the Rat- Flea (Ceratophyllus fasciatus). The British Medical Journal, 1 (2631): 1309-1310.

Molyneux, D. 1967. Feeding Behavior of the Larval Rat Flea Nosopsyllus fasciatus Bosc. Nature, 215: 779.

O'Toole, C. 1995. The Encyclopedia of Insects. New York: Facts on File.

Pratt, H., N. Good. 1954. Distribution of Some Common Domestic Rat Ectoparasites in the United States. The Journal of Parasitology, 40 (2): 113-129.

Rothschild, M., B. Ford. 1973. Differences in the Mating Behavior of the Rat Flea Nosopsyllus fasciatus (Bosc). Journal of Entomolgy, 49 (2): 157-159.

Russell, H. 1913. The Flea. England: Cambridge University Press.

Rust, M. 1997. The Biology, Ecology, and Management of the Cat Flea. Annual Review of Entomology, 42: 451-473.

Strickland, C. 1914. The Biology of Ceratophyllus fasciatus Bosc., the Common Rat-Flea of Great Britain. The Journal of Hygiene, 14 (2): 129-142.