by Barbara Walvoord
(From Lathrop Lamp Post, Feb. 16, 2017)
Lots of creatures are moving on top of Lathrop snow–squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, and bobcats.
But some tiny black specks you see on the snow might be seeds or dust–until they jump.
These are so-called snow fleas (Hypergastrura nivicola), though they are not fleas. They belong to group of primitive insects called “springtails” (collembola) so named because two small latches hold their tails under their bodies, and when the latches are released, the tails spring out and catapult the snow fleas up to 100 times their own length–like one of us jumping the length of two football fields.
Our wimpy New England snow is nothing to these critters–they live in Antarctica and on top of the Himalayas. Their body chemistry protects them from freezing-it’s being studied as a possible aid to preserving human organs for transplant. And walking on snow is nothing–springtails are so light they can also walk on water.
We see the snow fleas when they climb out onto the top of the snow, but millions of them live year-long in our soil. They contribute greatly to soil health and are a critical part of the carbon cycle. Munching away on dead leaves, pollen, sap, algae, fungi, and microbes, snow fleas help to break down detritus so its carbon and nutrients can be taken up again by our maples and our mayflowers.