All posts by Michelle Ziegler

Private SNAFU learns about Malaria

Malaria was a major risk for American troops during World War II. The US Army enlisted the help of Theodor Geisil, Dr Seuss, to produce educational booklets and pamphlets (discussed here). They also turned to moving pictures to educate the troops.  Private Snafu was featured in a catalog of 26 SNAFU training films based on characters originally developed by Theodore Geisil and Phil Eastman and produced by Warner Bros. If these World War II cartoons has a familiar look, they were produced by Chuck Jones who produced most of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons we all grew up with. These are the only two on malaria that I have found. Enjoy!

Private SNAFU vs Malaria Mike (1944)

Private SNAFU — Its Murder She Says (1945)

The Promiscuous Human Flea

Female Pulex irritans, the human flea, from the Katja ZSM collection (CC3.0)
Female Pulex irritans, the human flea, from the Katja ZSM collection (CC3.0)

by Michelle Ziegler

The human flea seems like a misnomer today. We are not its current primary host, but that doesn’t mean that it once wasn’t our primary flea.  Pulex irritans  was first described by Carl Linnaeus as the “house flea” in 1758 (Krasnov 2012:4) and it is still found in homes in many parts of the world.

For the most part, the human flea is a nuisance, an irritant as its name implies. Except when it isn’t, when it occasionally transmits Yersinia pestis, the plague, to people. Pulex irritans has been  in homes with human plague cases from Arizona to Madagascar (Archibald & Kunitz, 1971; Ratovonjato et al, 2014). In 2006, Drancourt, Houhamdi, and Raoult argued that either the human flea or louse played a major role in human plague epidemics.

Human fleas have been found in the homes in several areas where plague occurs. P. irritans infected with Y. pestis were found on a dog in a home of a plague victim on Navajo land in Arizona in 1968. They also report knowledge  Y. pestis being isolated from  P. irritans fleas on dogs in the home of an infected child in Kayneta in 1968 (Archibald & Kunitz, 1971).   A recent survey of plague regions in Tanzania found 50% of the fleas in homes were P. irritans (Haule et al, 2013). A recent survey of fleas in Madagascar found that 98% of the fleas found inside control homes  in the control region of the study were Pulex irritans (Miarinjara et al, 2016). The fact that they did not find them in the homes within the area of the plague outbreak a month earlier may be due to extensive spraying of insecticide to end the epidemic. Human fleas are suspected of being the vectors for a variety of zoonotic diseases in Iran today (Rahbari, Nabian, & Nourolahi, 2008).

The human flea, Pulex irritans, has had a very interesting and convoluted history. All of the Pulex fleas are thought to have evolved in South America, perhaps on guinea pigs or piccary . P. irritans is the only member of its genus  that has left the Americas.  It made it to Eurasia long before the “Columbian Exchange”.  So it crossed a land bridge at some point to begin spreading in Eurasia, and it need not have crossed on a human.  Ötzi the 5000 year old ice mummy from the Italian Alps yielded two human fleas from his  artifacts (Schedl, 2000). P. irritans has also been found Egypt from 3500 BC  (Bain 2004) and 1350-1323 BC (Panagiotakopulu, 2001) showing that it does well in warm, dry climates also. So not only where they present for the entire known period of plague but they have been specifically found in warm and cold regions. Pulex irritans has been found in floor debris of uncovered sites from Roman Britain (Kenward, 1998). They were common inhabitants of early medieval Irish homes (O’Sullivan, 2008).  They are fairly common finds in Norse Greenland settlements. Unfortunately flea surveys have not been done on most continental archaeological sites (or at least I haven’t found them).

So why is P. irritans called a promiscuous flea? It has nothing to do with sex! In this case promiscuous means that it will feed off of a wide variety of host species. It has a truly impressive host range beyond humans including pigs, dogs, cats, goats and sheep, cattle, chickens, porcupines, multiple species of foxes, wolves, coyotes,  golden jackel of Iran,  badgers, prairie dogs,  rabbits, wild cats,  and mice. There are undoubtably more species that could be added. It seems to be very common on foxes in North America and Europe. These are, of course, primarily predators of rodents.  Given its wide range of hosts, its distribution and frequency among hosts has probably fluctuated wildly due to environmental and biodiversity changes over the last millennia.

Such a wide host range also makes it a potential bridging vector, one that can move disease between a wild reservoir to a domestic space transmitting it to domestic rodents, pets, and humans. Importantly, bridging vectors work in both directions, meaning that it could be instrumental in developing a wildlife reservoir after a human epidemic in a new region.

General flea life cycle (CDC). Adults are only 5% of flea biomass.

flea-pyramid-1P. irritans has a life cycle that is well suited to thriving in buildings like houses, barns, sheds, and animal nests or dens. Most of their biomass is in the egg stage. Small white eggs are often laid on the host but almost always fall off on to the floor. They do particularly well on the floor of stables and animal sheds where fermenting manure and debris keeps the eggs warm and moist.  They also do well in human homes where it is usually warmer and more humid than outdoors. They breed all year around. The eggs will hatch into larvae that resemble maggots within 4-6 days. The very active larvae will feed on organic debris including feces of the adult flea and other animals. After three molts it will develop a cocooned pupae where it will undergo a metamorphosis to the adult flea. It can remain in the pupa for several months if necessary until the conditions are suitable. So although human fleas are usually not present in stables or sheds during the coldest months the pupa can easily span the winter to emerge as adults in the early spring. This may explain why they are often the most abundant in the spring when all of the pupae from the late fall and winter emerge. It is unclear if the lifecycle pauses inside a heated human home. A well fed adult can live up to 513 days and even starved can last 135 days (Krasnov, 2012: 54). It is unclear how long they live after being infected by Yersinia pestis (or other pathogens). Fleas only feed on blood as adults so this is their only phase that can be infected by Yersinia pestis.

Modern infestations of P. irritans in Greece and Iran can give a few insights into its disease ecology. Sheep and goats are consistently the most heavily infested animals with P. irritans in modern Iran and Greece. In parts of Iran, P. irritans is the most common flea captured from humans or domestic livestock: goats, sheep, cattle and chickens (Moemenbellah-Fard et al, 2014; Rahbari,  Nabian, & Nourolahi, 2008;  Rafinejad et al, 2013). In some modern surveys, P. irritans is over 90% of the fleas collected in rural areas, found on sheep, goats, cattle, humans and chickens — “wherever the animal infestation was high the fleas easily transmitted to humans” (Rahbari et al, 2008:44). In Greece, Christodoulopoulos et al. (2006) made a very important observation:

“fleas accumulated in the goat environment with each successive generation leading to an increase in their number. This conclusion could be corroborated by the observation that the most successful flea control measure was the change of barn location with movement of the goats to another far away new-constructed barn.” (p. 142-143)

So even with modern insecticides, sheep dips, and building techniques available, the infestation of the building could not be controlled. This has implications for human housing. Observations of flea ecology in Iran back this up, albeit without addressing methods of eliminating infestations.

The Iranian reports discuss human flea bites more. Noting that men who worked with animals had a higher bite rate. Bites are primarily around the ankles and lower legs, often multiple bites in a row.  In Iran they noted that human reactions to the flea bites varied from highly allergic to no sensitivity at all (Rahbari, Nabian, & Nourolahi, 2008). This is a difference in human immunology to the fleas and sensitivity is likely to alter the immune response to not only the bite but also bacteria in the bite. There is also likely to be heterogeneity in which humans and animals are bitten.

As we begin to take Pulex irritans more seriously as a plague vector, there is a lot of basic biology that needs to be done yet. How long can they survive infected? How does it effect their feeding behavior? Some studies showed that a small percentage of P. irritans can block, so what effect does that have on transmission in that small percent of fleas?


Archibald, W. S., & Kunitz, S. J. (1971). Detection of plague by testing serums of dogs on the Navajo Reservation. HSMHA Health Reports, 86(4), 377–380.

Bain, A. (2004). Irritating intimates: the archaeoentomology of lice, fleas, and bedbugs. Northeast Historical Archaeology, 33(1), 81–90.

Barnes, Jefferey. (22 April 2014)  Human flea, Arthropod Museum Notes, Number 108. University of Arkansas.

Buckland, P. C., & Sadler, J. P. (1989). A biogeography of the human flea, Pulex irritans L.(Siphonaptera: Pulicidae). Journal of Biogeography (UK).

Christodoulopoulos, G., Theodoropoulos, G., Kominakis, A., & Theis, J. H. (2006). Biological, seasonal and environmental factors associated with Pulex irritans infestation of dairy goats in Greece. Veterinary Parasitology, 137(1-2), 137–143.

Dobler, G., & Pfeffer, M. (2011). Fleas as parasites of the family Canidae. Parasites & Vectors, 4, 139–139.

Drancourt, M., Houhamdi, L., & Raoult, D. (2006). Yersinia pestis as a telluric, human ectoparasite-borne organism. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 6(4), 234–241.

Eisen, Rebecca J., David T. Dennis, and Kenneth L. Gage. “The Role of Early-Phase Transmission in the Spread of Yersinia pestis.” Journal of medical entomology 52.6 (2015): 1183-1192.

Haule, M., Lyamuya, E. E., Kilonzo, B. S., Matee, M. I., & Hangombe, B. M. (2013). Investigation of fleas as vectors in the transmission of plague during a quiescent period in North-Eastern, Tanzania. Journal of Entomology and Nematology, 5(7).

Hufthammer, Anne Karin, and Lars Walløe. “Rats cannot have been intermediate hosts for Yersinia pestis during medieval plague epidemics in Northern Europe.” Journal of Archaeological Science 40.4 (2013): 1752-1759.

Kenward, H. (1999). Insect remains as indicators of zonation of land use and activity in Roman Carlisle, England. Reports from the Environmental Archaeology Unit (Vol. 99, pp. 1–30).

Kotti, B. K. (2015). Fleas (Siphonaptera) of mammals and birds in the Great Caucasus. Entomological Review, 95(6), 728–738.

Krasnov, Boris (2012) Functional and Ecological Ecology of Fleas: A Model for Ecological Parasitology. Cambridge University Press.

Laudisoit, A., Leirs, H., Makundi, R. H., Van Dongen, S., Davis, S., Neerinckx, S., et al. (2007). Plague and the human flea, Tanzania. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 13(5), 687–693.

Miarinjara A, Rogier C, Harimalala M, Ramihangihajason TR, Boyer S. Xenopsylla brasiliensis fleas in plague focus areas, Madagascar. Emerg Infect Dis. 2016 Dec [3 Sept 2016].

Moemenbellah-Fard, M. D., Shahriari, B., Azizi, K., Fakoorziba, M. R., Mohammadi, J., & Amin, M. (2014). Faunal distribution of fleas and their blood-feeding preferences using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays from farm animals and human shelters in a new rural region of southern Iran. Journal of Parasitic Diseases, 40(1), 169–175.

O’Sullivan, A. (2008). Early medieval houses in Ireland: social identity and dwelling spaces. Peritia, 20, 225–256.

Panagiotakopulu, E. (2001). Fleas from pharaonic Amarna. Antiquity, 75, 499–500.

Pulex irritans, Animal Diversity Web, accessed 18 June 2016.

Rahbari, S., Nabian, S., & Nourolahi, F. (2008). Flea infestation in farm animals and its health implication. Iranian Journal of Parasitology, 3(2), 43–47.

Rafinejad, J., Piazak, N., Dehghan, A., Shemshad, K., & Basseri, H. R. (2013). Affect of some environmental parameters on fleas density in human and animal shelters. American Journal of Research Communication.

Ratovonjato, J., Rajerison, M., Rahelinirina, S., & Boyer, S. (2014). Yersinia pestis in Pulex irritans Fleas during Plague Outbreak, Madagascar. Emerging Infectious Disease, 20(8), 1414–1415.

Reilly, E. (2003). The contribution of insect remains to an understanding of the environment of Viking-age and medieval Dublin.  pp. 40-61 In: Medieval Dublin IV. Four Courts Press.

Schedl, W. (2000). “Contribution to insect remains from the accompanying equipment of the Iceman”. pp. 151-155 In S. Bortenschlager & K. Oeggl (Eds.), The Iceman and his Natural Environment. Springer.

Yakhchali, M., & Bahramnejad, K. (2015). A survey of Pulex irritans (Linnaeus 1758, Siphonaptera: Pulicidae) infestation in sheep and residential areas in Kurdistan Province, Iran. The Iranian Journal of Veterinary Science and Technology, 7(1), 40–47.


A Summer in review



Its been a long and stressful summer. Projects are moving along and there should be more news to share on one of those projects in the next couple months. Other projects set in motion this summer may take a year or more to run their course. So the articles I’m sharing below are just some of my reading that stood out as being useful, along with my some relevant medieval history books.

My new publication! This is based on a presentation I have at Kalamazoo in 2011.

Ziegler, M. R. (2016). Plague in Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert. In The Sacred and the Secular in Medieval Healing (pp. 65–77). Routledge.


Williamson, T. (2015). Environment, society and landscape in Early Medieval England. Boydell Press.

Hamerow, H. (2012). Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford University Press. 

Curently reading: Tim Clarkson (2016) Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and It’s Dark Age Origins. John Donald/Birlinn. (Not directly related to a project, but good, fun reading.)


Christodoulopoulos, G., Theodoropoulos, G., Kominakis, A., & Theis, J. H. (2006). Biological, seasonal and environmental factors associated with Pulex irritans infestation of dairy goats in Greece. Veterinary Parasitology, 137(1-2), 137–143.

Feldman, M., Harbeck, M., Keller, M., Spyrou, M. A., Rott, A., Trautmann, B., et al. (2016). A high-coverage Yersinia pestis Genome from a 6th-century Justinianic Plague Victim. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 1–31.

Kenward, H. (1999). Insect remains as indicators of zonation of land use and activity in Roman Carlisle, England. Reports from the Environmental Archaeology Unit (Vol. 99, pp. 1–30).

Ferraguti, M., la Puente, J. M.-D., Roiz, D., Ruiz, S., Soriguer, R., & Figuerola, J. (2016). Effects of landscape anthropization on mosquito community composition and abundance. Scientific Reports, 6, 1–9.

Jones, L., & Nevell, R. (2016). Plagued by doubt and viral misinformation: the need for evidence-based use of historical disease images. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 1–6.

Caron, A., Cappelle, J., Cumming, G. S., de Garine-Wichatitsky, M., & Gaidet, N. (2015). Bridge hosts, a missing link for disease ecology in multi-host systems. Veterinary Research, 46(1), 1–11.

Purcell, N. (1996). Rome and the management of water: environment, culture and power. In G. Shipley & J. B. Salmon (Eds.), Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity (pp. 103–119). London: Routledge.

Christie, N. (1996). Barren fields? Landscapes and settlements in late Roman and post-Roman Italy. In G. Shipley & J. B. Salmon (Eds.), Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity (pp. 144–160). London: Routledge.

Scheidel, W. 2015. Death and the City: Ancient Rome and Beyond. Available at SSRN 2609651.

O’Sullivan, A. (2008). Early medieval houses in Ireland: social identity and dwelling spaces. Peritia, 20, 225–256.

Bousema, T., Griffin, J. T., Sauerwein, R. W., Smith, D. L., Churcher, T. S., Takken, W., et al. (2012). Hitting Hotspots: Spatial Targeting of Malaria for Control and Elimination. PLoS Medicine, 9(1), e1001165–7.