I’ve never seen a springtail. I didn’t even realize I should have. But I am assured they are “commonly” known as snow fleas, which implies lots of other people see them. They see them hopping around on the snow, where they appear as little black dots that seem to vanish when they jump. If I did see black dots hopping around on the snow I’d assume it’s just one more thing living in my eyeballs with the spots, tracers, and streamers.

I have only lately come to realize that although many people don’t pay as close attention to the natural world as I do, they do see more. I’m nearsighted. The only thing in my favor, when it comes to small critters near the ground, is that all of me is pretty near the ground also. My one and only growth spurt was more of a dribble. I did top out north of five feet but I’m still considered stompable in a crowd.

Evidently, though, I am squashing hundreds of springtails with every step in the forest. The existence of snow fleas is just something I am expected to accept, like bosons and quarks and gay Republicans.

Springtails are hexapods. I am assured they are not, however, insects. They have six legs and a bonus thumper that they tuck underneath themselves like the tail on a naughty dog, and when they get a notion to escape a predator or just go on a toot, they whang themselves up in the air with their thumper. It is soberly maintained that the little buggers can sproing themselves repeatedly in one direction and cover two miles in ten days.

This is the kind of thing you’re just expected to believe. You can’t strap a tracking device on a 1-mm organism, as far as I know, so perhaps they paint identification dots on them and wait for them to show up someplace else. It doesn’t seem any less daunting than building a supercollider to whiz matter through, just in case some of it bangs into something and leaves behind a fossil boson. In other words, some things you just have to take on faith. A number of highly respected religions are based on less.

But there is not a critter so small that it cannot be actively enslaved by fungi, which are notorious scamps. Mycorrhyzal fungi are essential parts of the ecosystem and support trees and run messenger services for them and collect their mail and provide general support—and when they detect there is not enough nitrogen in the soil, they send out a pheromone to draw the springtails in, then paralyze them, and dismantle them from the inside to farm their nitrogen for the trees. Not exactly certain what’s in it for the fungi though.

You do hear a lot of stories about fungi and their predilection for invading tissues and taking liberties with your person. I wouldn’t have thought you could milk enough nitrogen from a nearly invisible not-quite-insect to nourish a big tree but sometimes it’s the small donations that put a campaign over the top.

There are other non-insect hexapods, including coneheads, which live in leaf litter and also in rabbit holes on the internet, which is where I found them. Coneheads are even smaller than springtails. In fact they’re so small nobody even noticed them until the early 1900s. Same thing happened with my dad. One of the things that sets them apart is their life cycle development. Instead of starting out small, getting too big for their pajamas, and busting out larger and larger over successive molts, they actually add body segments to their rear portions when they molt. This is called “anamorphosis,” or “twerking.”

And did you know that coneheads are the only hexapods with a post-anal telson? You do now.


Thanks, Sharon Hull!