Friday, January 4, 2013

My Snow Has Fleas!

Earlier this week we had so much snow that we just had to strap on our skinny skis and lay some tracks across the hayfields and into the woods. One morning when I headed out on my skis, I found specks of pepper in the tracks – pepper specks that hopped up and down.

It wasn’t pepper – it was a bunch of snow fleas. Snow fleas aren’t really fleas; they’re tiny arthropods called Collembola, or “springtails” and they’re about 1/8 inch (2 mm) long. They’re called “springtails” because they have two tail-like furcula on their back end – thin tails that are tucked up underneath their belly. When the springtail wants to move it releases its spring-loaded tail, which catapults it up into the air. It’s a great way to move, but there’s only one problem: the tiny critters can’t control where they go, so they often land in the same spot or just a few inches away.

Springtails live in the soil, which right now is a couple feet under the snow. But on warm winter days they climb or hop or catapult their way to the surface and hang out in cross country ski tracks and other places. They’ve got glycine-rich antifreeze protein inside that keeps them from turning into ice crystals.

I found my snow fleas in the woods, but they’re everywhere. So keep your eyes out for tiny flecks on the snow. And when you find some, grab a hand lens and get a good look at them. 

You can find out lots more about snow fleas here. And remember to check out more cool science stuff at STEM Friday.

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