December 8th, 2006
Last Sunday, while hiking at Baird Woods in Lanark, we found countless numbers of Springtails (Collembola) hopping about on the snow. The greatest concentrations were beneath the Red Pines in a section of plantation forest. They looked like tiny flecks of very dark-coloured ash. Their concentration was probably at least 1 per square inch over the snow, but with huge clusters inside depressions left by deer hoofprints. Most of the Springtails were crawling over the surface of the snow, but there were always a few springing about. The above photo was taken another day in another forest, but the appearance and the concentration of Springtails was similar to that seen last weekend. When conditions are just right — temperature slightly above freezing — Springtails often make their appearance on the snow.
Springtails belong to the Order Collembola. There are approximately 7,500 species of Springtails in the world. They’ve been around for awhile — fossil records indicate that they’ve been around for at least 400 million years. They are very plentiful in most parts of the world, and feed on algae, fungi, and most forms of decaying organic materials.
To the human population, Springtails are all but invisible unless you know where to look for them. A couple of years ago, on a balmy winter day, I found thousands of Springtails grazing on algae on a wooden park bench (see above). I doubt that any of those humans seated on the bench had even the slightest idea that they were sitting upon perhaps hundreds of these voracious little creatures! Of course, I was fascinated to find such a nice group out and about on a winter day, so I spent several minutes observing and taking photos as they went about their feeding.
Also on mild winter days, I have found Springtails wandering between the gills of frozen clusters the oyster-type mushrooms that grow on trees (see above and below). When the sun comes out and there’s a bit of thawing, Springtails are often out in full force, taking advantage of the situation as they munch on softened fungi and other tasty morsels.
Springtails get their common name due to their ability to “spring” several centimeters in the air using a special appendage referred to as a furcula. When walking about or feeding, the furcula is held forward against the lower abdomen. When released, the furcula springs back, catapulting the Springtail several centimeters. There are some good diagrams of Springtail anatomy on this factsheet from the University of Missouri website. Incidentally, I find it quite amusing that Springtails appear in the “Pests” section of the website.
If you live in a place where snow falls in winter, be sure to watch for Springtails on the snow surface on mild days. If you’re in a snowless area, Springtails can be found in leaf mulch, bark or soil. They are also often found in huge aggregations on the water’s surface in streams, puddles and ponds. I reported an excellent aggregation in one of my earlier posts back in April. By the way, Frans Janssens of the Collembola.org website identified the earlier Springtails as Hypogastrura nivicola. If you’re curious about Springtails and want to know more, you’ll find plenty of information and photos on that site.