Snow Fleas

At first glance it looked like tiny bits of dust. Or pepper scattered on the snow.

Down on my knees I noticed that the “pepper” was moving. Hmmm.

Turns out I was watching snow fleas cavorting  on a “warm” winter afternoon when the temperature had risen to a couple of degrees above freezing.

Despite their name, snow fleas aren’t fleas at all — they’re springtails. Tucked under the abdomen is a tail-like structure called a furcula. When this tiny critter releases the furcula it catapults the owner into the air — hence the name, springtail.

Springtails are great decomposers, feeding on decaying plant material and soil bacteria. They’re active year-round but because of their size it’s unlikely you’ll see them any time but in the winter. The ones I found were about 1 – 2 mm long, shorter than an eyelash.

My snowy footprints filled with snow fleas one afternoon. Like some other “cold-blooded” animals, springtails contain a natural antifreeze that keeps their bodies from freezing. (Springtails in Antarctica are tougher than our Alberta species. They’ve been seen hopping about at -38C (-31F). )

Snow fleas in foot prints

The springtails clustered together by the thousands. By comparison, my ring looks huge.

Snow fleas and ring for size

This closer view shows the antennae and the 3 pairs of legs. One larger springtail, toward the bottom centre, even shows the furcula. You can see more detailed closeups here.

Snow fleas

I’m not sure why the springtails congregated in such huge numbers. A winter love fest?

Lots of snow fleas

I watched these amazing little critters over several days. When the temperature dropped, they disappeared. But perhaps they’ll return with the next chinook.


Snow fleas / Springtails   Hypogastrura nivicola (?)

29 thoughts on “Snow Fleas

    1. Springtails are a conundrum. Although some resources I read said they are insects others say they are not or, at best, are a form of primitive insect. Another “hmmm” moment. They are listed in the Order Collembola. Curiouser and curiouser as Alice would say. 🙂

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  1. I’ve seen these, but only once years ago along a rather remote trail when I was on snowshoes in about 3 feet of snow. Took me quite awhile to find out what they were. At first I could hardly believe they were insects.

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    1. This is only the second or third time I can recall seeing them but this was by far the biggest collection. Stunning in their numbers. As for being insects, the jury seems hung on that — some call them insects, some say that if they are insects, then they’re a very primitive form. There are definite anatomical differences. Don’t know if DNA analysis has been done but that has certainly given scientists new info to the point that they are reclassifying a number of species.

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      1. I must admit it was a little difficult trying to convince them to go back onto the snow and I inadvertently squashed some in the process, Curt.

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  2. Fascinating ! Were you a biology major in an earlier life ? Thank you for sharing these super bits of winter in Alberta. Bob still says “bleak, bleak, bleak” even when the sun shines. I try not to let it depress me.. Hugs, Judi

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    1. I’ve always been intrigued by plants and animals — especially the creepy crawly and little known ones that seem to be given short shrift. I’ve only seen snow fleas once or twice before, but never in such a congregation. Hope the sun is shining on you today good friend.

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    1. They are amazing. And we know so little about them — but that seems to be the case with many of the seldom seen animals that scuttle around us. It makes my day when I find something like this. 🙂

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  3. Hi Sally, Would it be possible to use some of your excellent Snow Fleas photos in a Not-for-Profit children’s newsletter/mag?

    I am a volunteer editor for a not-for-profit group called NatureKids BC. We have a quarterly magazine which we circulate to our members and this winter we have an article on life on, in and under the snow. We have no reasonable pictures of snow fleas of the quality your pictures have. They are spectacular and would pique the interest of elementary aged children in a snowy clime. Such is our clientele in B.C.

    As we work with donated pictures (shoestring budget!) I will send a editor’s proof of our winter issue with the hope that you could allow us to use one of your snow flea pictures. The pics need to be 2 meg or more for our productions. Of course your contribution would be fully mentioned as you wish in our credits. In the proof you can see how we attribute our photos at present.

    To send you the proof I would need an email address as I don’t think I can attach it to your comment box. Of course we would mail you a hardcopy of the magazine when it is circulated.

    Do you think you could help us out?

    Thank you’

    Brian Herrin

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