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What Lurks Beneath the Sand?

Sand fleas and beach fleas, jigger or chigger?

Red bugs or bed bugs. Who do you figure?

Can ya tell ‘em apart just by who’s bigger?

Not so easy, not so fast. To learn all about them, listen to our podcast!

Has this list piqued your interest? Oh yeah, and pique is yet another name for one of these arthropods. I would say parasites, but they are not all parasites. In fact, this list includes insects, arachnids, and crustaceans. They range from 0.2 mm to 35 mm in size. Despite all the variation and many causing disease, the names of these little critters generate confusion. Let’s take a closer look.

Podcast: Free Audio File

If you prefer to listen to podcasts, feel free to play the audio version of this blog by clicking on the player above.

Podcast: Sand Fleas and Beach Fleas, Jigger or Chigger?
Length: 11 minutes 47 seconds
Written and read by the author

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Can Sand Fleas Bite Us?

Today’s podcast originates from a recent question I received from a veterinarian regarding preventive strategies against sand fleas on US beaches. They worried about pets being bitten. We discussed that while bearing the name “flea,” these little guys are actually crustaceans who filter feed as the tide flows in and thus cannot bite. Of the genus Emerita, other names attached to them are beach fleas, sand crabs, or mole crabs.

Then a couple weeks ago, Fox News ran the story, “Girl's feet infested with parasitic sand fleas” and I felt the need to clarify.

https://www.foxnews.com/health/girls-feet-infested-with-parasitic-sand-fleas-after-running-through-pigsty-barefoot

  • Image: Woody Thrower, en.wikipedia user: Wthrower [Public domain]
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The Reason Why Using Genus and Species Names is Awesome

Those Homo sapiens who know me, know that I love referring to organisms by their family, genus and/or species name. Here’s why. As we discussed, sand fleas in the US refer to harmless and extremely cute little crustaceans of the genus Emerita. Children often catch them in their hands at the shore’s edge. I hold many fond memories of this and still try to find them when I walk along beaches.

Across the pond, in the UK, sand fleas refer to Tunga pentrans which is the world’s smallest flea. Despite their diminutive size, these fleas transfer pain in a most unsettling and gross manner. At barely a millimeter in size, the gravid females gnaw their way through people’s skin with their crude mouthparts. They gnash their way until only the tip of their bum is exposed. There they feed and begin to produce eggs – usually one to two hundred. This process swells their body over 2000 times their original size. This mechanical pressure, along with an inflammatory response elicits marked pain. As they gain access where our skin contacts them on tropical sandy environments, most infestations are located on our feet. The unfortunate child in the news obtained her infection from walking barefoot in a pig pen while traveling in Brazil. The CDC reports that Tunga infestations predispose people to secondary bacterial infections, gangrene, and even tetanus.

  • Image: British Museum of Natural History {{Information |Description=Chigger flea |Source=Guide to the exhibited series of insects |Date=1909 |Author=British Museum of Natural History |Permission=pd-old |other_versions= }} ==Licensing== {{pd-old}}. This work is in the public domain in the United States.
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Britain’s Naming of Tunga Fleas Causes Much of the Confusion

Endemic from Mexico to South America, and across the West Indies and parts of Africa, it is no wonder that these disgusting little beasties have over 20 different common names according to Wikipedia. The most well-known common name is likely “Chigoe flea.”

While I love the land of Shakespeare, Britain’s names for Tunga fleas creates a lot of confusion as they call them by the name “sand flea” and “jigger.” That’s “jigger” with a “J,” not to be confused with chiggers with a “ch.” Chiggers are Trombiculid mites which are technically arachnids, like spiders or ticks. While we blame both chiggers and jiggers for burrowing inside our skin, only the Tunga flea burrows inside anyone’s skin. The nearly microscopic chigger mite stays on top.

This fact barely makes them less offensive though. They tear off a bit of your skin, spit some digestive juices inside, wait for a bunch of skin cells to melt and form a hardened bed from which they can sit and munch on you for days before leaving.

Trombiculid mites or chiggers are occasionally referred to as “red bugs” due to their ruddy complexion. While Trombiculid is a mouthful, the term “red bugs” misleads one into thinking that they are true bugs – they are not. At least “bed bugs” are “true bugs” meaning that they belong to the family of Hemiptera. Hemiptera means “half-wing” and represents the only group of insects that entomologists, parasitologists, and preventists call “bugs.” Most insects commonly referred to as bugs aren’t really bugs. Consider red bugs, lovebugs, and ladybugs to name a few.

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That Was Easy, Wasn’t It?

So, there you have it! A quick tour of some confusing nomenclature. To summarize, in the United States, sand fleas, beach fleas, and sand crabs are cute crab-like creatures of the shore, Brits affected by Tunga fleas call these guys jiggers or sand fleas but most cultures have their own name for them. In the US, the best common name, if you must use one, is Chigoe flea. Chiggers are tiny Trombiculid mites who cause rashes in most parts of the world. And bed bugs are true bugs which we all hope are not sharing a room with us. So, if possible, head to the beach for a romantic weekend and avoid any arthropod but the adorable Emerita analoga dancing between your fingers and the sand.

References and Further Reading

  1. Bowman, A. (2014, June 20). Chiggers Trombiculid Mites. Retrieved April 20, 2019, from http://www.aavp.org/wiki/arthropods/arachnids/prostigmata/chiggers-trombiculid-mites/
  2. CDC - DPDx - Tungiasis. (2017, December 31). Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/dpdx/tungiasis/index.html
  3. Hein, A. (2019, April 4). Girl's feet infested with parasitic sand fleas after running through pigsty barefoot. Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://www.foxnews.com/health/girls-feet-infested-with-parasitic-sand-fleas-after-running-through-pigsty-barefoot
  4. Orkin LLC. (2019). How to Get Rid of Sand Fleas: Bites, Treatment, and Control. Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://www.orkin.com/other/fleas/sand-fleas
  5. Tunga penetrans. (2019, April 19). Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunga_penetrans
  6. Tyring, S., Lupi, O., & Hengge, U. R. (2017). Tropical dermatology. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

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