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). )
The springtails clustered together by the thousands. By comparison, my ring looks huge.
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.
I’m not sure why the springtails congregated in such huge numbers. A winter love fest?
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 (?)