Wild Colorado: Snowfleas: Alive and well in Summit
Ryan Summerlin November 16, 2012
What exists in populations exceeding millions in Summit County with hardly a single resident knowing of its existence? The collembola.
It is called by several names: Most commonly the snowflea, the springtails and the “moving carpet” to describe what it look like while it feeds on the snow that sustains it with algae on the top-most layer turning the snow to a red-to-purple-like color.
These insects, that thrive in winter climates similar to Summit County, date back to well before the dinosaurs, entomologists estimate some 400 million years ago with origins in the sub-arctic regions.
Kenneth Christiansen, co-author of “The Collembola of North America,” describes them like this: “They’re semi-comatose and then all of a sudden it’s like Times Square. They come to life and start pushing each other away from the food source like they’re trying to escape the mob,” he said.
In his studies, Christiansen said he “stalked them in caves, housed them in jars and occasionally flushed them down the drain when their population became to overwhelming.”
“It’s a good thing there are no collembola rights activists out there or I’d probably be in trouble,” he said.
Most insects find cold weather and snow rather unappealing but snow fleas, which are neither true fleas or insects actually thrive in it.
They are sturdy, wingless fleas that really are no bother to humans – the 1/8 inch creatures prefer mold, fungi and algae to feeding on human blood. In fact, they stay as far away as possible from humans.
Despite their effort to stay away from human populations, the mobs of snowfleas have been reported at local ski areas, worrying some residents of a “possible epidemic of the insect,” according to Tom Eager, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service based in Gunnison.
“We’ve gotten a few calls on them so far – every year we get about two or three reports of them,” Eager said. “People are always shocked to see them, but they’re pretty common actually.”
Currently, with the little snow in the county gradually melting due to warm temperatures, mold and algae form more quickly on the surface of the snow. Snowfleas often climb through snow layers to congregate on bare spots at the bases of trees or on the snow itself.
Existing unbeknownst to most, the snowflea that thrives among skiers and riders local or visiting to Summit County, are really quite interesting.
Entomologists have had difficulty classifying the springtail as deciding exactly where to place them within a group that includes butterflies, prawns and spiders becomes difficult. Some scientists add that the snowflea looks more like a crustacean’s biological and physical make-up.
But Christiansen, who prefers to keep it more simple, said “they’re small arthropods related to insects.”
But no doubt, the snowflea has major differences in anatomy and genetics.
“Technically they are in their own order of insects,” Eager said. “Collembola are one of the more primitive insects.”
Collembola have distinguished themselves as one of the hardiest insects with over 6,000 related species to the snowflea, and their evolutionary longevity can be attributed to their ability to eat just about anything – including their own waste.
The insect can also endure extreme temperatures – it’s been found in the Hawaiian volcanoes and in Antarctica. Despite its ability to use a wide range – arguably a complete range – of climates, the snowflea has existed largely under the radar.
Springtails are incredibly abundant too – at feasting sites (those with plentiful supplies of algae or mold) the insects move together in groups exceeding one million.
They are active year round, but require a damp environment to thrive.
Most Summit County residents have never heard of them. When propositioned with the existence of “snowfleas,” the first reaction is usually in the realm of: “Ew, creepy, do they bite? Do they live in human clothing?”
The answer is no. Snowfleas don’t feed on human blood or flesh or even have the ability to bite humans, one would not even know of the company that they were sharing with such an insect, according to Eager.
The Springtail’s reputation for acrobatics comes from its ability to vault great distances.
What allows it to do this is a pair of cocked springs, similar to that of a jack rabbit that snaps suddenly when released, propelling it into the air.
Though vaulting is a superb way to evade predators, the action has a major drawback, according to Christiansen. Collembola can’t control their direction and frequently land in the same spot they jumped from.
“Being all but brainless has its advantages,” Christiansen said. “We think they’re probably relatively free from psychological stress.”
Most insects are cold-blooded- their internal temperature is related to the environment’s temperature, much like snakes and frogs. Most insects die from frozen tissue and incubate larvae or eggs to sustain future generations.
So the idea that springtails can be active on snow in the dead of winter – or live in the arctic and Antarctica, which they do – is hard to imagine.
The answer is fairly simple though, Eager said. They exist as a dehydrated creature with very little water in their bodies.
“They seem to be able to exist without much need for water,” Eager said. “The sun too, is able to sustain their body temperature and recharge proteins from the bacteria they consume.”
Research suggests that some of the anti-freezing proteins in springtails could be used to save human organs for longer times before transplantation.
So, basically the reason for writing: They’re here, there and everywhere and it really doesn’t matter. These brainless creatures sustain their lives with the scarcest of resources and their hardy bodies allow them to thrive through harsh winters.
So when a red, buzzing “moving carpet,” is seen on the local terrain, no need for alarm.