The following was originally posted in the March 2013 Nature Notes, Heartland Outdoor School’s newsletter:
I remember when I was a boy that someone mentioned that when winter was drawing to a close the snow fleas can be seen on the melting snow. I immediately had visions of gullible young folks being taken in by stories of cow tipping, jackalopes, and snipe hunts. I discovered, however, that snow fleas are actually real and can be seen at the end of the winter time.
Snow Fleas are technically a creature known as a spring-tail and are not much larger than a comma on this page. Spring-tails are a type of Collembola and are actually not an insect at all. Spring-tails are present all year round; however, the snow fleas are more visible in the wintertime due to their contrasting color from the snow. Spring-tails gain their name from having a spring loaded tail that allows them to launch their bodies similar to a flea (hence the name). Spring-tails are decomposers and will feed on decaying organic matter which produces valuable topsoil. They produce a protein that operates similarly to anti-freeze that allows them to be in the snow. The protein is being studied for use in improving organ transplants and improved forms of ice cream (doesn’t that sound appetizing?).
If you want to see Snow Fleas, wait until a warm day when the snow is still on the ground and watch the patches of snow for little flecks of black. Get out your magnifying glass and look close for the tiny animals; particularly look near the bases of trees or newly exposed leaf litter. Happy flea hunting!