When the epic Adirondack Mountain winter reaches its zenith in early February, it's time to be on the lookout for snow fleas. These tiny creatures are wingless and unlike real fleas, they don't bite. Snow fleas are a kind of springtail. The spring-loaded tail which gives the springtail its name is called a furcula. It flicks out from beneath the creature when it feels threatened, and boing! Instant relocation.
Snowfleas and their fellow springtails were long considered insects, but recently scientists decided they belong in another group. They are arthropods, as all insects and spiders are, and they are hexapods, like all insects, but instead of being considered insects they are now dubbed entognathans. Unlike insects, springtails have internal mouthparts. Mostly, they live in the soil and function as decomposers.
Why do snow fleas emerge on the surface of the snow, sometimes in concentrations that look like coal dust and turn white powder black? That's the million dollar question. Scientists aren't certain. What do you think? They might emerge to breed, but we don't find them breeding. They might emerge to feast, but there's little or no evidence of them eating. One idea is that by midwinter, there numbers have grown so high in the soil that they have nowhere to go but spill out onto the surface.
I love seeing snow fleas. They tend to turn up on mild, cheerful days in mid to late winter and suggest that cold weather, as much as we enjoy it in the Adirondacks, won't last forever. Spring is coming!