On a warm sunny winter day, if you venture outside, you may notice what looks like pepper sprinkled on the snow. Look more closely and you will notice that the pepper is moving! Indeed it’s jumping great distances for its size. Its common name is very apt as they can catapult themselves up to 100 times their own body length using an abdominal appendage called a furcular. This structure is what gives the group its name – Springtails. The furcular folds beneath the body and is held under tension until needed, once tension is reached the end slips out of a receptacle and snaps against the snow which throws the Springtail into the air.
Springtails play an important role in natural decomposition, feeding on decaying organic matter in the soil and thereby recycling nutrients for plants. They are able to withstand the bitter temperatures of winter thanks to a “glycine-rich antifreeze protein,” which binds to ice crystals as they start to form, preventing the crystals from growing larger.
Springtails belong to the subphylum called Hexopoda – six-legged arthropods. They are commonly called Snow Fleas but they are not related to fleas in any way! There are many species of Hexapoda in Canada and all are quite small, about one millimeter in length. They live in the soil where they are seldom encountered, however they can be extremely numerous with populations reaching 250,000,000 per acre.
So if you are out walking in the winter look in depressions in the snow where Springtails like to congregate. A foot print or other depression offers a microhabitat that is just a little warmer, is protected from the wind, and the snow is saturated with liquid water. And say thank you to these important little environmentalist for their help in recycling plant nutrients!