What could be more unimportant than a snow flea? Earlier this month, I had occasion to be standing next to South Fork Reservoir in a few inches of snow. I looked at my feet because they were cold and noticed black dots on the snow. That was not important in the morning cold until one of the black dots disappeared and another magically appeared nearby.
I got down on one knee to take a photo, which increased my shivering and made me grumble to myself, “Why bother?” I could take a photo of any snow and Photoshop in some black dots, and the two photos would have looked the same. But I crouched there awhile, watching black dots appear and disappear on the snow.
Hypogastrura nivicola is their official name. The common name of snow flea comes from their being able to spring to great heights like fleas. However, they are not fleas or technically even insects, but a species of dark blue springtail.
Their ability to disappear and re-appear on snow is due to a tail-like appendage, although any resemblance to an actual tail ends with the name. This appendage is called a furcula and normally lies wrapped underneath the animal’s abdomen. Fuculas are like tiny springs and can be snapped away from the body to fling the animal high in the air.
It can jump nearly 100 times its body length. On that cold winter day, I would lose sight of a springtail as it left the snow but my eyes could not follow it in the air. I only saw it again when it landed back on the snow.
We tend to think of insects as summer critters but the snow flea does fine in cold temperatures and is active on “warm” winter days. A “glycine-rich antifreeze protein” in its body keeps it from freezing. Snow fleas are believed to feed on fungal spores and algae on the surface of the snow.
Actually, if we got down close to summer soil, we would find masses of tiny springtails jumping around. They are about a sixteenth of an inch long. They feed on bacteria and decaying organic matter in the soil.
Damp soil can hold 250 million individuals per acre. Springtails cover the world and are found in most habitats. Active Antarctic springtails have been observed at 30 below Fahrenheit.
Springtails can cause severe damage to agricultural crops. They sometimes move indoors to damp places such as bathrooms and basements and can be found in the over-watered soil of house plants.
In extreme instances they can also be found on people. The best way to eradicate them is to remove the excess moisture.
Maybe they are not so insignificant.