Yesterday my bride, my beast (a perennially curious and wanderlusty Labrador Retriever) and I explored some soggy-but-still-snowy woodlands along the western shore of Lake Champlain with John Davis (The Rewilding Institute) and Jon Leibowitz (Northeast Wilderness Trust). It would be difficult to find a more interesting duo with whom to muck about on a balmy late December day, celebrating oak and shag bark hickory trees and pondering wild critter tracks.
In this melting eden we stumbled upon the snow fleas…
Does it look like someone sneezed pepper on the snow? Is the pepper bouncing around? You’re probably looking at springtails, also known as snow fleas. Don’t worry, they aren’t real fleas — they just bounce around in a similar way. (Source: WIRED)
That description, pepper sneezed on snow, is pretty much spot on. Bouncing pepper.
Springtails are incredibly abundant — there can be 250,000,000 individuals per square acre. They are active year round, but usually are hidden away under leaves or your favorite flowerpot. It’s a good thing to see springtails in and around your garden and woods. They are found where there is rich organic soil, and they help make more soil by snarfing up fungal spores, insect poop, and other debris. They rarely cause plant damage. (Source: WIRED)
Did you get that? Despite the assurance to the contrary by pest control companies, snow fleas are not bad guys. In fact, they’re good guys!
Springtails are not parasites; they feed on decaying organic matter in the soil (such as leaf litter) and, therefore, play an important part in natural decomposition. (Source: EcoTone)
Snow fleas are wingless insects, incapable of flying. They move by walking, and also by jumping. But unlike other famous jumping arthropods (like grasshoppers or jumping spiders), snow fleas don’t use their legs to jump. Snow fleas catapult themselves into the air by releasing a spring-like mechanism called a furcula, a sort of tail that’s folded underneath its body, ready for action.
(Thus the name springtail.) When the furcula releases, the snow flea is launched several inches, a considerable distance for such a tiny bug. It’s an effective way to flee potential predators quickly, although they have no way to steer.(Source: What Are Snow Fleas? All About Winter Springtails)
Snow fleas in particular are able to withstand the bitter temperatures of winter thanks to a “glycine-rich antifreeze protein,” as reported in a study published in Biophysical Journal. The protein in the snow fleas binds to ice crystals as they start to form, preventing the crystals from growing larger. (Source: EcoTone)
And this intimate look at snow fleas courtesy of Mark Fraser (www.naturewalkswithmark.org) offers up the perfect wrap up to this first-and-probably-last post about snow fleas.
Thanks, John Davis, Jon Leibowitz, and Mark Fraser!