Snow Flea, Photo Courtesy of Kenneth Christiansen

What, snow has fleas? Where? Most of us have never noticed snow fleas, unique little creatures that are really very common, and right under our noses. Here's how to find them.

On a warm, sunny winter day, take a look at the base of a tree where the snow may have melted down to expose some leaves, or where the snow is shallow or hollowed out just a bit. There you'll find a sprinkling of what looks like "pepper" or "ashes" on the surface of the snow. Each speck you see is a snow flea. Once you find them, watch closely and see what they're up to.

Snow fleas are actually tiny insects which come out on warm, sunny days to eat decayed plant material or sap oozing from the tree. They hop around acting like fleas and that's where they get their name, snow "fleas." They're not fleas though, but actually an arthropod called Collembola (kol-LEM-bo-la) or commonly called springtails which measure about 1/8 inch (2mm) long. They have a very unique catapult system to get around. Two "tails" on their back end are tucked up underneath their belly, held in place by tiny "hooks." When the springtail wants to move, they just release the spring-loaded "tails," called furcula, which hit the snow and send them flying into the air. Since snow fleas can't conrol their flight or direction, they frequently land in the same spot or only a few inches away.

These are not just winter critters. You can find them any time of year in the forest living in the leaf litter stuck to the underside of leaves or on the surface of the soil, chomping on bits of rotting vegetation. They also live on the surface of ponds. You'd have to look very closely to see them here because they blend in well and are so tiny.

Next time you're playing in the snow outside, or just going for a stroll, take a look and see if you can spy these incredible spring-loaded springtails, commonly called "snow fleas."