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Scientist Saw World In Its Fleas Insects Gave Traub Insight Into Evolution, Continental Drift

Dr. Robert Traub, a medical entomologist who compared fleas from distant times and places and saw in them clues to the mysteries of evolution and continental drift, died Dec. 21 at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland. He was 80 and lived in Bethesda.

The cause was prostate cancer and diabetes, family members said.

Working in the rain forests of Asia for the U.S. Army, Traub sought ways that soldiers could avoid diseases borne by chiggers and other insects. In the 1950s, he commanded the Army’s research laboratory in Kuala Lumpur in what is now Malaysia. He let chiggers bite him so he could contract typhus to test an experimental cure. The cure worked. He retired as a colonel in 1962 and joined the University of Maryland.

Traub was so devoted to the flea that he amassed one of the world’s two best collections of them, said his frequent collaborator, Miriam Rothschild of Peterborough, England, who is a noted flea authority herself and oversees the world’s other great flea archive, at the Natural History Museum in London.

Traub and Rothschild together wrote a definitive work, “The Rothschild Collection of Fleas: The Ceratophyllidae” (Cambridge University Press, 1983).

By looking at the microscopic differences between the flea of Tasmania and a cousin from Capetown, South Africa, or Tierra del Fuego, Traub developed a theory of how each of the 2,200 species of fleas evolved, each along with its own animal or bird host, over about 125 million years.

In fleas, most of them about the size of a small grain of rice, Traub saw how continents had drifted apart, an idea that was later confirmed by geologists.

“He could look at one of those little critters and know if it was from a bird, a squirrel or what,” said Charles Wisseman, a former professor in microbiology at the University of Maryland. “He knew the links to the environment, to ecology and, in the end, to evolution.”

By looking at the hair-grabbing spines on a flea through a microscope, Traub could find clues to the weather or the forests in its environment, even millions of years ago for an old specimen, colleagues said.

Traub was named honorary curator of fleas for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington on his retirement from teaching at Maryland.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Renee; a son, Dr. Roger D. Traub, of Ossining, N.Y., four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

His son said that his father was a genuine eccentric and in Bethesda collected such things as ivory and blow guns, as well as fleas, and would return from a field trip with an orangutan or gibbon for the National Zoo in Washington.