All about the Black Death flea that killed 100 million people

Oriental Rat Flea

(Xenopsylla cheopis)

SIZE: Up to 1/6 in (4 mm)

FAMILY: Pulicidae

HABITAT: Near rats, their primary food source

DISTRIBUTION: Worldwide, particularly tropical and subtropical climates, but some temperate zones as well

MEET THE RELATIVES: The cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis, is a relative, as is the dog flea C. can is—but in the United States, it is primarily the cat flea that preys on both cats and dogs. They are known to transmit tapeworms.

Excerpted from Wicked Bugs (Young Readers Edition): The Meanest, Deadliest, Grossest Bugs on Earth by Amy Stewart, illustrated by Briony Morrow-Cribbs. © 2017 by Amy Stewart. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Young Readers. All rights reserved. Available from Amazon.

On an autumn day in 1907, two brothers in San Francisco found a dead rat in the cellar. Inspired by their father, an undertaker, they decided to find a coffin for the rat to give it a proper funeral.

When they ran home for dinner that night, the boys brought along a souvenir of their adventures—bloodthirsty fleas, starved for a meal after their rat host had died. Along with the fleas came a deadly disease—the plague.

The rat flea would prefer to leave humans, cats, dogs, and chickens alone, but when rat populations experience a massive die off—as they do during epidemics of the plague—the fleas turn to other warm-blooded creatures for their food. This is exactly what happened to those two unfortunate boys. Within a month, the plague had killed their parents but spared the boys, leaving them orphans. Read the rest