On a sunny, mild day in February, a friend and I strolled along the East-West Trail in the Bangor City Forest. Gradually it came to our attention that there were specks of black dotting the snow, like someone had vigorously shaken a pepper container, leaving pepper strewn about the trail.
A few feet on, a huge cluster of these dark specks were gathered in a sunken boot track. It looked like a splotch of black paint. As we paused, peering more closely, we noticed that some of the peppery dots were hopping. Springtails.
While still gazing at these dots, two walkers paused to see what we were looking at. Without hesitation, we simultaneously answered, “Snow fleas.” With a hint of anxiousness, the woman blurted out, “Do they bite?” Hastily we reassured her that these were springtails and not related to fleas. They do not bite. They are safe.
So, what are springtails? In North America there are more than 600 species of springtails. Hypogastrura nivicola, or the snow flea, is in a group known as elongated bodied springtails. As a species, Hypogastruridae are the most likely of the springtails to gather in swarms, hence the black splotch of springtails in the boot impression. As the pictures show, these springtails are purplish-navy blue.
They are arthropods, and even though they have six legs, segmented antennae and segmented bodies like insects, they are usually considered non-insects. These tiny creatures are about 1/16 inch (1-2 millimeter) in length and live in soil, leaf litter and decaying logs. As decomposers they are important to the breakdown of decaying plants, fungi, bacteria and algae, and thus contribute to healthy soils. Truly, they are among nature’s much needed recyclers.
Snow fleas prefer moist habitat. If the soil dries out, they move to a new site. As a species, they acquired their common name “springtail” because of their mode of locomotion. They have a pair of forked tail-like appendages called furcula. Most of the time, the furcula rests in a latch called a tenaculum that is located under the abdomen. When the tenaculum is released, the furcula propels down and backward, launching the snow flea into the air. They are rapidly catapulted many times their body length, even up to 3 or 4 inches.
As fascinating as all that is, what are they doing on the surface of the snow in February? Amazingly, they are adapted to the cold and will emerge onto the snow’s surface on mild, sunny days. Some think they may be finding fungus for food.
This encounter was a few years ago, but now every time I go for a walk in the woods on a mild, sunny winter day, I scan the snow for the ubiquitous snow flea. Tiny though they are, they are remarkable creatures. And when asked what I’m looking at, I reply “springtails.”
Grace Bartlett lives in Bangor and is a Maine Master Naturalist who volunteers for Bangor Land Trust, Orono Bog Boardwalk and Hirundo Wildlife Refuge.