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Researchers say fleas may talk to each other

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- How does a flea let another flea know when he's found a particularly tasty dog?

By word of mouth, so to speak, according to two West Virginia University researchers.

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James Amrine, an entomologist with the WVU Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, and Mark Jerabek, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, said in a recent research paper that fleas may use high frequency sound to advertise the location of a food source.

Amrine said that, as far as he knows, he and Jerabek are the only ones of among about 130 flea researchers worldwide studying that theory.

The theory resulted from Amrine's research at Iowa State University in which he used a scanning electron microscope to study the outer skeleton of the flea. Of particular interest was an area near the insect's rump known as the sensilium, which contains sensory hairs positioned in an array similar to radar antennas.

Amrine said he believes the hair arrangement could be used by fleas as sensitive directional receivers for high-frequency sound produced through breathing openings on their abdomens.

As the sound is transmitted by one flea, it might be picked up as vibrations by the sensory hair on other fleas, he said. He added that the hair acts as a long, thin cylindrical bar that is set into vibration at high frequencies.

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Jerabek is trying to devise a receiver to pick up the sound waves, which are assumed to be at a higher frequency than those used by bats.

For the moment, the two scientists say they don't have any plans to try to interpret the signals. However, they added new control measures could be developed by using ultrasound to attract hungry fleas to a sticky trap.

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