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Flea Close Up (Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

By showing how strange familiar things really are, the electron scanning microscope provides an uncanny window into a hidden realm.  To demonstrate this, here are some remarkable portrait photographs of humble fleas taken by various gifted microscopists.  In order to obtain these images, the photographers required not only large expensive electron microscopes (and the training to use them), but they also had to kill the fleas, dehydrate the bodies, and then coat the tiny corpses with microscopically thin gold plating!  Additionally it is necessary to place such specimens in a vacuum, since air molecules interferes with the electron beam.  But all of that preparation was worth it–look at the amazingly expressive flea faces!  Each of these characters could be a rapacious nineteenth century huckster, or a wimpy impresario bent on one last gasp of glory.  Among all of the insect world, I believe fleas might have the most interesting faces:

Cat Flea, Ctenocephalides felis (photo credit "Last Refuge")

Dog Flea, Ctenocephalides canis (Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

Flea (photo by RBirtles)

Flea (Image by David Scharf)
What was this book about?

Of course even before the electron microscope, artists and illustrators have appreciated fleas’ distinctive personalities.  The image above is an illustration from a German children’s book from the nineteen forties which merits inclusion in this portrait gallery because of the detailed face of the tiny flea and because of the strangeness of the image.

Water Flea (photo by Jan Michels)

The final portrait here (above) is actually a water flea, Daphneia, which came up in my browser as an accident.  The water flea is unrelated to the insect fleas portrayed above except in the most cursory way: they are both arthropods.  The image was, however, too good to pass up–so I suppose this blog post celebrates intriguing portraits of things called fleas.  The water flea scan makes an interesting point about epigenetics–water fleas do not have a crested helmet (like the one in the photo) except when they live in the same ecosystem as tadpole shrimp.  Tadpole shrimp can pray on water fleas but find the shrimp with helmet shaped heads frightening or unappetizing.

(Credit: Stanislav Gorb)

A scanning electron microscope provided this remarkable close up view of a housefly’s foot.  The fly can clasp on to difficult perches with the wicked little claws–which explains some of the remarkable places flies are able to alight.  Additionally, surface tension provided by the innumerable tiny hairs on the two off-white pads allows the fly to hold up its weight on smooth surfaces.   Some of the tiny hairs are actually sensory organs by which the fly “tastes” whatever it has landed on.  The spiky yellow balls are grains of pollen which have stuck to the fly.

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