A Renewed Interest in Spring

By Dr. Stephanie Ogren, MRWA Member and VP of Science and Education at the Grand Rapids Public Museum

Springtail on the ice. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I have never really liked spring.  I am more of a fall person…changing leaves, brooding skies, crisp air. Spring, to me, was and is, mud, rain, and unpredictable.  This year I am looking for signs of spring like never before – attempting to keep a distance while keeping others and myself safe.  This has made me appreciate the opportunities this new reality provides us with.  Amidst the working from home and endless web and conference calls, walks along area rivers and streams have become my daily exercise, a time to recharge and try to see nature as never before.

One of my favorite winter/spring organisms are springtails. Some people call them snow fleas, but they are not fleas at all.  They are Arthropods in the order Collembola. They seem to jump around like fleas when you see them because they have a spring-like appendage called a furcula that flips them into the air.  They are very small, just a few millimeters but they are numerous, and we usually just don’t notice them.  When the snow is melting you can often see them in footprints and around the base of trees.  They look like a bunch of pepper or black specks but then upon further examination they seem to hop around.

Group of springtails. Photo: Robbie Sproule / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Springtails live in the soil and leaf litter year-round. We notice them more in the winter due to their coloration and because they come to the top of the snow on warm days when it is melting. It is thought that they do this to search for food and mates. Springtails generally feed on leaf litter and decaying material including microscopic bacteria, fungi and algae. In addition to feeding they are in a constant search for moisture. They are sensitive to dehydrating and use a special tube-like organ to suck water from surfaces they are on. Springtails do not freeze in the winter even as they are surrounded by freezing temperatures. They have a protein and amino acid complex in their body that acts an internal anti-freeze and allows them to remain active.

Next time you are out in the woods, look for that last bit of snow or near the base of a tree and see if you can spot the springtail. Take the time to look around and appreciate all that spring has to offer.