Today’s micro-creature has six legs, long antennae, and a segmented body… but it’s not classified as an insect (anymore).
Springtails are one thing you can be sure to find throughout the winter months, and they’re fascinating. Even though they don’t belong to the insect club, because they have interior mouthparts and no wings, they’re worth a profile.
Springtails are in the sub-class Collembola, and there are more than 9,000 species. But most remarkably, they are among the most abundant of any visible creature. One paper from 1997 estimated there are 100,000 springtails per square meter of ground, in nearly every place on earth that there’s soil and leaf litter or grass.
Most Collembola eat decomposing plants and molds and fungus. Some are predatory or have other diets.
At Mount Pisgah you can find the two common forms: globular and elongate, or, metaphorically: meatball and hot dog. Globular springtails are in the Symphypleona order. Keep in mind, these creatures are beyond tiny, just 1/16 of an inch long, and the antennae are longer than the head.
Elongate, or slender springtails are generally a smidge larger, and can be covered in scales similar to those on butterfly wings. They are in the Poduromorpha and Entomobryomorpha orders.
The springtail’s “spring” comes from a unique appendage called a furcula. It’s an organ in the shape of a snake’s tongue that releases from under the body to launch the springtail into the air to evade predators. In doing so, springtails fly skyward and spin around wildly.
In 2022, researchers discovered that water-borne and land-dwelling springtails can “stick” their landings by using the collophore, an appendage on the midsection. The Collembola captures a drop of water on its collophore upon takeoff, uses it to right itself in mid-air and lower its center of gravity as it lands. The video linked below is impressive and worth a watch.
Two more crazy facts: By successive molting, springtails can decrease their body size by nearly one-third when it’s hot, lowering their metabolic rate. And, some springtails called snow fleas live in wintry climates all over the world, including Antarctica.
See more of Karen’s work here.
Deep Look’s fantastic video on Springtails (if you haven’t found KQED’s Deep Look yet, click the link now and then find more!): www.youtube.com/watch?v=H94mzOt6nKc. Accessed 1/15/24.
Wikipedia offers some in-depth information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Springtail#cite_note-38. Accessed 1/15/24.