About Fleas, from Scratch; 'They Can Pull More Than 30,000 Times Their Own Weight, a Feat the Professor Likened to a Man Towing an Elephant'

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Byline: VICTOR LEWIS-SMITH

AFTER years of research, I've finally discovered the collective noun for collective nouns. It's a peculiar of collective nouns, which I suppose is no odder than a bale of turtles, a barren of mules, a deceit of lapwings (or lawyers), a smack of jellyfish (or heroin addicts, come to that), a business of ferrets (named, presumably, after the mess they leave behind), a descent of woodpeckers, a murmuration of starlings, a singular of boars, or a hypocrisy of animal-lovers.

Okay, I made up the last one, but what else can you call a group of people who lapse into paroxysms of grief when told that melting Antarctic ice is preventing a herd of seals from reaching their feeding grounds, even though the first thing that those mammals would do if they got there would be to devour a hundred shoals of salmon, which surely have an equal right to life?

As usual, a sentimental apartheid is being practised by animal lovers: cute and fluffy equals good, slimy and scaly equals bad.

Fleas have traditionally had such a dire public image that nobody has even bothered to think of a collective noun for them, and the little bloodsuckers are notorious for biting the hand that feeds them (right up to the armpit, if possible). But that hasn't stopped flea-circus ringmaster Arnold Frenzy from taking over the Channel 4 Slot this week and attempting to rehabilitate the insects in the public consciousness with his three-part miniature series, The Wonderful World of Fleas.

"They have a face that, frankly, only a mother could love," he began last night, and as he outlined the other characteristics of the common Siphonaptera, the description began to sound oddly familiar.

Dark eyes, large abdomen, strange legs, lightweight, parasitic, irritating, fond of sudden acceleration and of getting under people's skin ... think of a Sunday-night car-show presenter, and I'm sure you'll know who I mean.

Notwithstanding last week's news story that the spittle bug is now officially the world's greatest jumper, Professor Frenzy positively assaulted us with facts about the astonishing athletic prowess of the flea. According to him, they can accelerate faster than a space shuttle (especially Challenger), they can jump eight inches high (the equivalent of a man leaping over the Eiffel Tower), and they can pull more than 30,000 times their own weight, a feat he likened to a man towing an elephant.

Actually, I think he'd miscalculated there, because 30,000 times the weight of an average man would give you an elephant weighing 385,714 stone (and that's certainly not an animal I'd enjoy taking up the Khyber Pass), but such arithmetical quibbles would mean little to a man who clearly enjoys a very close professional and personal relationship with his insectile employees. …