What is a water flea?

A water flea has only a distant relationship to land fleas, but takes its name from its flea-like movements.

The water flea is a microscopic crustacean that gets its nickname from the jerky, flea-like movements it makes while swimming. A member of the genus Daphnia and the order Cladocera, the crustacean is only remotely related to terrestrial fleas. More than 600 species were described and cataloged in 2011 and many more species are expected to be identified.

Water fleas consume organic matter found at the bottom of streams, as well as bacteria that float in the water.

The body structure of the crustacean, an arthropod, is similar to that of other insects in that it is divided into segments. These separate areas are difficult to detect in most water flea species, however, because the segments tend to be almost or fully fused. Like other insects, this organism has an exoskeleton and three to six pairs of legs. They have compound eyes and antennae. Its head is usually angled downwards towards the rest of its body, a division typically indicated by a small notch or groove.

Water fleas live in various aquatic environments such as rivers, ponds, freshwater lakes and streams. Some species live in acidic swamps. They are, however, mostly freshwater dwellers.

Land fleas, which bite and suck the blood of humans and animals, are different from water fleas.

Various species have different life cycles and life spans. Their longevity generally depends on the temperature of their aquatic environment. The average life expectancy for different species of daphnia ranges from 29 days to 108 days, with the maximum life expectancy being no more than about a year.

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The water flea’s eating habits are similar to those of many aquatic creatures. Depending on their species and location, they eat various small organisms such as tiny crustaceans and rotifers, and organic particles and creatures like algae from the water they live in. The crustacean is a filter feeder that consumes organic waste such as bacteria floating in the water. They also consume organic matter found at the bottom of lakes and streams. As part of the aquatic circle of life, fish and frogs often feed on water fleas.

Some water fleas live in acidic swamps.

Most water fleas are asexual and reproduce by parthenogenesis, which means that embryonic growth and fertilization occur without the need for male fertilization. In some species and under certain conditions, males – who are considerably smaller than females – are required to fertilize eggs. This is, however, the exception. While some species are abundant, others are threatened with extinction. The stability of a given population depends on the conditions of the place where the species resides.

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