Not all parasites need to find a way inside the body of the host in order to thrive. A number of non-invasive parasites prefer to simply hitch a ride on their host, piggybacking around either until they’re done feeding, or their life cycle ends. Despite their non-invasive habits, such parasites remain effective vectors of disease. Fortunately, treatment of such piggybacking bugs is typically more straightforward than with their invasive cousins.
From Host to Host
Famous for their immense jumping ability, fleas (Siphonaptera) are perfectly adapted to the piggybacking lifestyle. They can leap a distance equivalent to almost 13 times their own body length, enabling them to switch from host to host when they need to. Fleas have flattened bodies, making it easy for them to traverse the fur of the warm-blooded animals on whom they feed. Pet owners can treat a flea infestation with topical solutions applied to the fur, but in the wild, flea infestations can quickly escalate.
Hitching a Long Ride
If you spot an animal that has a noticeably dull coat, low energy and who seems to be preoccupied with grooming himself, it’s probable that this poor creature is playing host to a lice (Pediculosis) or mite (Acarina) infestation. Lice piggyback on a host for their entire lives, although they will switch hosts if the opportunity presents itself. Unlike fleas, lice require their host to be in contact with another animal before they switch, so they are most commonly found infesting herding animals, like goats. Once they’ve found a suitable host, they breed and die on it, leaving the next generation of parasitic pests to suck the blood of the unsuspecting mammal. Mites are adapted to survive on various hosts in various ways. Some never infest animals, but prefer to feed on leaves. Others, like ear mites (Otodectes cynotis), crawl into a host’s ear and feed on the wax.
While You Were Sleeping
The bedbug (Cimex lectularius) has a misleading name, as it isn’t exclusively found in beds. They will thrive anywhere they have access to warm-blooded hosts for feeding. China’s rail system has a big problem with bedbugs living in its seats. Bedbugs only piggyback onto a host when they need to feed. They are attracted to the carbon monoxide in our breath and the heat of our skin.
Disease and Decay
The bug world is full of parasites, some of which only exhibit parasitic behavior if the opportunity arises, like maggots. Fly larvae of the Cuterebra order may infest a wound, but can also thrive living on other organic material. Some species of flies, including the tsetse fly (Glossina), are parasitic feeders, but they land on their host and fly away, rather than hitching a ride. Mosquitos (Culicidae) are not only parasitic feeders, but they also carry their own parasite, which can cause malaria.
- Environmental Health Services, Inc: How to get Rid of Fleas
- University of Florida: External Parasites of Sheep and Goats
- Wall Street Journal: Blood-Sucking Bedbugs Worry China’s Rail Travelers
- Animal Planet: Monsters Inside Me
- Pet MD: Botflies (Maggots) in Dogs
- World Health Organization: Human African Trypanosomiasis
- CNET: Itch at First Bite: Researchers Capture Unnerving Video of Mosquitoes Feeding
- ASPCA: Ear Mites
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