Monday, March 25, 2013

Boing! Goes Spring

All of that snow on the ground does make spring feel a long way off, even though we’ve passed the equinox. While we wait for the snow to melt and frogs to get hopping, some interesting things are already out and hopping about.

Collembola are about 3 mm long - tiny! Photo by Kenney
Collembola, a.k.a. “springtails,” can be found on the forest floor and near wetlands where they’re beginning their annual breeding congregations. Springtails are closely related to insects but in their own taxonomic class (or subclass, depending on whom you talk to). They are tiny – really tiny – measuring much less than 6 mm in most cases. Around Boston, most of our Collembola are 2 or 3 mm. They are all black, have a distinct head with jointed antennae, a thorax with three pairs of legs, and an abdomen with no legs.

Breeding congregation on a small puddle. Photo by Burne
What makes Collembola particularly unique is an appendage on the end of the abdomen called a furcula. This forked appendage is held against the bottom of the abdomen, and when released, causes the animal to be launched several centimeters, giving them their moniker. Since they’re often found at the end of winter on snow, they’re also known as “snow fleas.”

In a funny sort of symmetry, Collembola have a mating strategy very similar to our favorite vernal pool vertebrate, the Spotted Salamander. Males deposit a stalked spermatophore that females gather; there’s no contact between the two.

Most Collembola are terrestrial and will be found throughout forested areas. There are many species that are semi-aquatic, though, and these will often be found around vernal pools, especially in spring. They utilize the water surface for breeding and feeding; they will often be seen bounding around the surface of a pool with all of the other organisms that are busily going about their business.

Wee little snow fleas on the trail. Photo by Burne
So take a close look around you on trails in the woods as you’re waiting for the snow to melt. There’s a lot to see, especially if you get low and look closely! ~MR Burne

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