Evolution Of The Bloodsucking Habit

Although blood-sucking insects are poorly represented in the fossil record, it seems probable that they emerged along with the first nesting or communal dwelling vertebrates (reptiles) in the Mesozoic era (65-225 mya). Evolution of the bloodsucking habit probably occurred in two main ways. The first route involved the attraction of insects to vertebrates, with the attraction being either to the protection of the nest environment or for the utilization of vertebrate-associated resources such as dung. The second route involved morphological preadaptations that permitted the rapid adoption of the blood-sucking habit.

Many insects would have been drawn to vertebrate nests because of the protected environment and abundance of food there. Gradually, some would have progressed to feeding on cast skin or feathers. Phoresy also would have permitted easy travel from one nest to another. Once phoresy was adopted, the insects may have begun to feed directly on the host animal and thus established an even more permanent association with the host; mallophagan lice make a good example of this type of association. Regular accidental encounters with blood may then have led rapidly to the evolution of the bloodsucking habit because of the highly nutritious nature of blood compared to skin, fur, and feather.

Other insects are attracted to vertebrates outside the nest situation to utilize other vertebrate-associated resources, notably dung. Dung is used by a wide variety of organisms and there is strong competition to be the first to lay eggs in it. So, for example, the female horn fly Haematobia irritans lays its eggs in dung within 15 s of its deposition. To do this, the insect must remain permanently with the vertebrate; to do that, it must feed on the vertebrate. The high nutritional content of blood will then make hematophagy a favored evolutionary route.

Some insects also had morphological preadaptations for piercing surfaces, facilitating the relatively easy switch to blood feeding. Entomophagous insects (those that feed on other insects) and plant-feeding insects are prime candidates. For example, the Boreidae are a group of small apterous scorpion flies who are capable of jumping. They live in moss and feed on other insects by piercing them with their mouthparts. They are commonly found in nests because of the moss content and abundance of insects found there. It is easy to imagine such a lineage developing into fleas.

Insects that feed on plants may also have switched to the blood-feeding habit. An unusual example is a blood-feeding moth, C. eustrigata. This moth belongs to a group of noctuids having a proboscis that is hardened and modified to allow them to penetrate fruit rinds. C. eustrigata has used the morphological preadaptation to feed on vertebrate blood.

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