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Bugs With Bounce

; Washington Vol. 19, Iss. 1,  (Jan 2004): 142-147.

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Astonishing the onlooker with their spectacular leaps, springtails are unique creatures whose diminutive size belies their ecological significance.

Winter is here. Waking up one morning, you peek outside your window and notice the sky brilliant with sunshine, while the ground and trees are blanketed with glistening snow. Drawn by the beauty of the landscape, you hurry outdoors for a stroll in a nearby park.

It is still a bit early, and everything seems quiet and restful. Except for an occasional bird fluttering by, there is hardly any sign of animal life. As you plod through the white carpet and admire the scenery, your gaze abruptly stops near the base of a tree.

What are those dark objects sprinkled on the snow? They look like coarse pepper grains or poppy seeds, but how did they get there? Perhaps they are just some bits of debris that fell from the branches. Curious to find out, you move closer. Much to your amazement, they leap away, as if to avoid your footsteps. "They are alive!" you gasp, kneeling down to take a closer look.

Welcome to the strange world of snow fleas and their relatives. The ancient Romans called them vermes nwalis, meaning snow worms. Yet they are neither worms nor fleas. Rather, they are examples of a unique group of arthropods (creatures with segmented bodies) known as springtails. The scientific name for their group is Collembola.

While snow fleas are springtails that are adapted to dwell in cold regions and may be observed frolicking in the snow, collembolans occur in virtually all habitats around the globe. Some species reside in deserts and some in even hotter volcanoes. Others occur in freshwater and marine habitats. A few species can be found in flowers and even in trees. The population density of collembolans...