Have you even been walking in the woods in late winter and seen a cluster of what look like fleas on the top of the snow? You’ve probably thought “eww!” and hurried on your way to escape an itchy outcome. The truth is that these so-called “snow fleas” pose no danger to you or your furry pets. You’re actually meeting one of the many species of Springtails, an order of arthropods that can be found on every continent, including Antarctica. These incredibly abundant creatures may leap, but they are not biting fleas. They actually consume leaf litter, fungi, and even other smaller creatures. Despite their tiny size, their existence may provide remarkable benefits that extend to you and me.
Springtails have six legs and antennas, but they are not classified as insects. Unlike insects, they have internal mouthparts and are wingless. The spring in their step comes from a furcula, which is the springy two-pronged “tail” for which these fascinating creatures are named. It normally lies tucked under their abdomen. When escaping predators, the furcula is released almost instantly, and it vaults them up to 10 centimeters, which is no joke when your size maxes out at half a centimeter in length.
With 100,000 found in one square meter of forest, it is clear that these critters form a substantial base of the food web on the forest floor. The red eft, the teenage stage of the red spotted newt, considers the springtails an ideal meal for their little mouths. Even the harvestman, more commonly called “daddy long-legs,” preys upon the springtail.
Why should you care about these creatures? They eat pathogenic fungi that can damage many agricultural crops. They also help spread the spores of mycorrhiza (fungi), whose symbiotic relationship with plants allow for an incredible array of plants to thrive, from wheat to beech trees. The variety of Springtail that is sometimes called a “snow flea” is also a focus of biomedical research. Scientists are trying to replicate the anti-freeze protein found in those ever-active Springtails in winter, and use it to aid the transition of body organs for transplant from donor to recipient.
We know nature’s ability to relax and soothe us in the midst of our busy lives, with scenic views and outstretched tree limbs. However the next time you take a walk in the woods, take a moment to appreciate the unseen world under your feet as well. It turns out that even the largely invisible, creepy-crawly world of wildlife in the woods may have myriad benefits for humanity.
Post by Liz Wagner, Grafton Lakes State Park.