This winter insect may be tiny, but watch it jump

Look closely at the snow and you might see these remarkable creatures: springtail fleas. Put your finger close and watch them jump. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Karen Hickerson

Look closely at the snow and you might see these remarkable creatures: springtail fleas. Put your finger close and watch them jump.

The early morning squeak of cold snow greets me as I begin a day of snowshoeing with kids. This early morning snow makes poor snowballs, but the beautiful facets sparkle like diamonds.

As the day progresses, the snow begins to melt just enough to make snowballs, and this is the time to look for insects. Yes, insects in winter. At just 4 millimeters, you will have to look closely to find one of my favorites. Get down close to the snow, put your nose almost all the way in the snow, and then you might see them.

Usually, they can be found on south-facing slopes, on or near the surface of the snow, near trees and shrubs. They look like bits of ash strewn over the surface. Once you find them, put your finger close to one and you will see a springtail flea jump. Often called “snow fleas,” these insects are not a flea and do not bite, but they can jump over 100 times their body length, about 4 to 5 inches. This would be like a human jumping over the Eiffel Tower. True fleas use their legs to jump; springtail fleas, however, have a special appendage attached to their abdomen called a furcula, that acts like a catapult.

This insect is found all over the world with an astounding 6,500 different species. One species lives above 21,000 feet elevation on Mount Everest, and there are several species in both the northern and southern polar regions. North America hosts about 700 different known species. The springtails in our area are decomposers and like all springtails, prefer moist humus soils. Humus can hold 3 to 5 times its own weight in moisture, increasing the soil’s capacity to withstand drought, making it an ideal place for the springtail. When you find springtails, you can be sure the soil near them is very rich in organic matter. In some areas, you may find up to 10,000 springtails per square meter.

Although not a well-known creature, they are sometimes seen when they come into people’s homes seeking moisture during dry spells. Their numbers can be very high, and for some people, this is unnerving as they invade moist corners and potted plants. They do not bite or spread disease, and if the moist area or plant soil is allowed to dry out, the springtails will quickly disappear.

When you head out for a hike, grandeur is easy to find in our majestic La Plata and San Juan mountains. But don’t forget the small wonders that are surrounding us. More than 25 percent of all known species on Earth live in soil or organic litter. Springtails are one of the small, overlooked creatures living under our feet. They are fascinating to watch, and it is exciting when you realize you are looking at insects.

As the snow melts and the miraculous soil thaws, slow down and look close; the springtails are waiting to be discovered. As always, I would love to know what you find.

karen@DurangoNatureStudies.org or 382-9244. Karen Hickerson is program manager for Durango Nature Studies.