Snow fleas, a species of springtail, are not a type of flea. Neither are they insects, though they are close relatives. During most of the year they live in the soil and leaf litter, consuming fungi and decaying vegetation. On warm winter days they appear on the surface of the snow, and are often described as “pepper on snow” due to their black color and tiny size (1 – 2 millimeters long).
Although they lack wings, they have two tail-like spring projections, or furcula, which are held like a spring against the bottom of their abdomen by a kind of latch. When the snow flea wants to move, the furcula springs downward, catapulting the snowflea as far as 100 times its body length. Snowfleas in the genus Hypogastrura possess three pinkish anal sacs which are usually located inside the snowflea, hidden from view. Just before jumping the snowflea everts these sacs from its anus. Their function has not been confirmed, but many biologists believe they serve as a sticky safety bag which prevents the snowflea from bouncing around when it lands.
One rarely even thinks about snowfleas (a species of springtail, Hypogastrura nivicola) until snow falls and then starts to melt. This is when these tiny wingless arthropods that catapult themselves through the air with the aid of a fork-like structure, or furcular, seem to magically appear out of nowhere. They actually are present year round, but their dark color makes them visible against the white snow.
The great majority of snowfleas live in soil, feeding on fungi, algae, decaying plant matter and bacteria. They work their way to the surface of the snow, crawling up the trunks of trees, plant stems and side of rocks where an open channel allows their migration. Thousands can be found on melting snow, especially in tracks or other depressions. No-one is absolutely sure of why they exhibit this behavior, though some scientists feel that these migrations are triggered by overcrowding and lack of food. Eventually those that survive on top of the snow make a return trip down into the soil.
Formerly classified as insects, snowfleas are now categorized as hexapods, due to some features they have which insects do not.
We tend to associate snow fleas, a type of springtail, with winter, as that is when we can easily see their tiny black bodies against the white snow. However, these insects don’t magically appear when it snows – they are in the leaf litter and soil all year round. Snow fleas are considered to be one of the most numerous land animals on earth, with several hundred thousand inhabiting a cubic yard. Even so, it was with amazement that I found several piles of snow fleas at the base of my garage door this morning – it’s the wrong time of year, and most of the individual snow fleas were not scattered apart from each other. Several solid black patches of snow fleas, one patch measuring roughly 6” by 2 ½ ”, piled 1/8” high, had appeared overnight. Something about the warm, humid air this morning may have caused them to leave the safety of the forest floor and for some unknown reason gather in piles on the cement. Once the garage door was raised, the piles disappeared within five minutes, as each tiny snow flea catapulted itself several inches away and disappeared into fallen leaves.