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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

That's Why They Call Them Springtails...

by Carol Mack


Sometimes, late winter snow looks like it has been sprinkled with black pepper. On closer examination, the individual particles seem to be jumping about—often quite startlingly. These are springtails, tiny relatives of insects that usually make their living in the soil. In fact, the 6000 or so known species of springtails (or Collembola) may be the most numerous organisms on earth. They are found in huge numbers in forest leaf litter, and play a very important role recycling organic matter and releasing soil nutrients.

Springtails use a unique catapult system to get around and to escape danger. Two "tails" on the back end are tucked up underneath the belly, held in place by tiny "hooks." When the creature wants to move, it releases the hooks, and these spring-loaded "tails" launch it in a random direction. This time of year, certain kinds of springtails often work their way up from the leaf litter to the surface of the snow in large masses, especially near the trunks of trees where the snow has retreated. The hopping motion of these dark specks has earned them the nickname of snow fleas. However, rest assured these fleas don’t bite or cause any harm. Sometimes they collect in low spots (like animal tracks or cross-country ski furrows) in such quantities that it looks like someone carefully painted the depressions black. Occasionally spring puddles will host millions of snow fleas agitating the surface of the water.

Snow flea assemblies include a chance to find new mates and diversify the gene pool. However, you won’t observe the orgy of coupling that implies, even with a magnifying glass. The males simply stick a sperm packet on top of a thin hair and leave it for the females to blunder into. Eventually, they make their way back down to the leaf litter to deposit eggs and continue their life cycle out of our sight.

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