Wilderness Underfoot: Winter’s snow fleas

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113276651932518.jpg’, ”, ‘Snow fleas –These homely little creatures have a pair of hairlike “tails” that are normally held down under their abdomens by hooks. When disturbed, they release the hooks and the hairs snap open, causing them to jump.’);

Don’t worry about being bitten by snow fleas; these amazing winter-hardy insects aren’t really fleas.

From the season’s first snowfall until the last patches of ice and snow melt away in the spring, keep your eyes open for these little creatures. They can be found on warmer winter days when the snow melts back to expose tree trunks and leaf litter on the ground. They look like specks of pepper or tiny poppy seeds against the white snow, and if you disturb them, they’ll leap away—hence the common name, snow fleas.

They’re not fleas; they’re not even closely related to them. Snow fleas are actually springtails—the modern representatives of one of the most ancient insects on Earth. These proto-insects go back at least 410 million years (Early Devonian Period). Today, they’re found on every continent, and they’ve adapted to all kinds of habitats, but only a few of the world’s 6,000 species of springtails are built for cold winter weather.

Snow fleas have evolved the ability to withstand freezing temperatures. They do this much like other creatures that are tolerant of deep cold, by using natural antifreeze to prevent damage to cells in their bodies. Despite their appearance on snow, they don’t have any particular attraction to it. They have simply climbed out of the leaf litter to sun themselves so they have enough energy to climb back down into the litter and eat. After sunset, they lie frozen under the snow, waiting for the next opportunity to come alive and eat.

Some species are so hardy they can live high up on glaciers, consuming little more than pollen and minute plant debris that blows up onto the ice.

The springtails are important decomposers, and they often surpass all the other animal life in soggy soils. You might even spot them in the summer, hopping on stagnant water.

Researchers at Queen’s University in Canada have recently discovered snow fleas have a unique antifreeze protein (AFP) that rapidly breaks down at warmer temperatures. They hope to study this protein for use in human organ transplants, for preventing crops from freezing, and for preventing crystallization in frozen foods.

From the Nov. 23-29, 2005, issue

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