Jumping Snow Fleas!

Springtails, Collembola, or jumping "snow fleas"
Photo credit: Ellen Kimbal

On a sunny, warm day in late February or early March if you come upon an area of snow where it looks like someone stopped and dumped black ice-cream sprinkles on the ground, take a closer look.  What you see is an insect--nicknamed the snow flea, though not actually a close relative of the flea--with a 400 million year history. This insect has an extraordinary presence on land, but usually goes unnoticed by the woods walker because it lives underground decomposing organic matter.  Why then is it coming out in early spring?  One hypothesis referenced by Mary Holland in Naturally Curious is Ken Christiansen's: ""He hypothesizes that due to breeding, snow flea numbers multiply at such a fast rate in the soil that by late winter they simply run out of space--and so the overflow ends up on the snow's surface."  This is no problem for the snow flea, as it can withstand -7 degrees F temperatures.  And why is it called the snow flea if it doesn't bite like a flea?  Because it can fly without wings.  Attached to its abdomen is an appendage that, when released, catapults the snow flea a few inches off the ground.