(This 739th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on Maya 29, 2005.)
Even good friends can surprise you.
I have known Allen Benton for over fifty years. We have birded together occasionally and have talked often at meetings. I've regularly read his columns in the Dunkirk Evening Observer as well as his three popular essay collections including his delightful new book, Birding Through Life: The Worldwide Wanderings of a Born Birder.
Only now I learn that Allen is an internationally recognized scientist specializing in the siphonaptera. To us less well-informed, those are fleas.
Benton has written dozens of papers for scientific journals on flea distribution and life history including An Atlas of the Fleas of the Eastern United States. He also corresponds with flea specialists in Canada, England, New Zealand, Russia, Hungary, France, Spain and several South American countries. Probably his best-known associate was Miriam Rothschild, whose father's famous flea collection is now in the British Museum.
(This photo of Allen Benton was taken by Justin Goetz of the Dunkirk Observer.)
When I learned of his specialty, I asked Allen if we could meet to discuss his work. He readily agreed and we combined our conversation with a birding tour of Dunkirk Harbor.
Benton's undergraduate science studies at Cornell focused on birds, much of his coursework with one of the nation's leading ornithologists, Arthur Allen. But in his graduate work his interests spread to mammals and his doctoral thesis, The Life History of the Pine Mouse, was supervised by William Hamilton, author of the encyclopedic Mammals of the Eastern United States, a standard resource I use regularly in preparing these columns.
Upon graduation, Benton took a faculty position at Albany State College, where he continued his research on mice. In carrying out these life history studies he regularly came across mouse parasites, many of them fleas, and he had to ask a specialist for identification. After a time and tired of responding to these requests, the specialist suggested that Benton learn to identify fleas himself.
That suggestion led to Benton's career change. He not only learned how to identify fleas and soon began contributing to our knowledge of this order of worldwide distribution. In 1962 he moved to Fredonia State College, from which he retired as a distinguished teaching professor in 1984. Despite his retirement, his research on fleas continued.
Fleas are, of course, not popular insects. Pet owners and hunters find them on both tame and wild animals. There are approximately 2000 species worldwide but only about 70 in the Eastern United States. The most widespread here is the cat flea, which is also found on other mammals, including dogs. The dog flea is far less common. Improved sanitation has largely eliminated human fleas from this region, but the statement of seventeenth century poet George Herbert still applies, "He who lies with dogs, riseth with fleas."
Fleas are wingless but they make up for this with remarkable jumping ability. Entomologist May Berenbaum tells us, "A flea can leap a distance 150 times its own body length, an accomplishment equivalent to a human doing a standing broad jump of a quarter-mile. In attaining a peak height of five or so inches in one two-thousandths of a second, fleas reach an acceleration of 140g, roughly equivalent to 20 times that required to put an Apollo moon rocket in orbit."
They are blood feeders and are famous for having spread bubonic plague. Fortunately, the plague vectors, several mouse and ground squirrel fleas, are now largely restricted in this country to prairie dog communities in the West and our local fleas are mostly nuisance insects. The cat flea can, however, transmit dog tapeworms and cause allergic reactions in humans.
Fleas are small, adults reaching only an eighth of an inch. Just mounting them for identification is a complex process that takes several days. Then the identification itself involves study of such esoteric characteristics as genital structure. Allen has had to learn and apply these techniques.
A self-effacing scientist, Allen most enjoyed discussing his students. A favorite, Vaughnda Shatrau, as a beginner collected almost 800 fleas from New Brunswick's Grand Manan Island. Much to Benton's surprise they included a species new to eastern North America.
It is a pleasure to learn that a fellow birder is also an international authority on these interesting insects.-- Gerry Rising