Sunday, 11 November 2012

Springtail

Image: Tim Evison
BOING! No, really.

House plants. Do you have house plants? I have house plants. And every time I water my house plants and that tiny pond develops on the soil only to sink away into the thirsty roots, there is always a sudden flurry of activity. Tiny white specks can be seen milling around in the moist earth and floating on the quickly disappearing water. Those are Springtails.

Image: dddaag via Flickr
And that little story tells you about the remarkable omnipresence of Springtails and not, I assure you, the filth and squalor of my home. For that, you'd have to examine the stinky socks all over the floor. (Don't)

Soil is definitely the Springtail's first love. They adore the stuff! If there's soil, there are almost definitely Springtails. Maybe thousands of them. They're not quite microscopic, but if you grab a handful of earth anywhere in the world you'll probably be holding dozens or hundreds of them right there. The power! The POWER!

Image: servitude via Flickr
And they really are all over the world. Not "every continent except Antarctica", but every single continent! Others can be found in deserts, up trees, in caves, mountains, beaches, tide pools... some even spend their entire life on the surface of ponds! The country boy done good. For now, there are at least 6 or 7,000 known species and probably thousands more as yet undiscovered.

I'm sure their minute size is a major help in their success, as it means they can survive in the tiniest of micro-climates. Springtails need moisture since they breathe through their skin and are prone to drying out. They even have this incredibly strange hosepipe thing that can stretch out from their abdomen and be used to take in water. It's a kind of tiny elephant's trunk that can be packed away when not in use.

Image: M Hedin via Flickr
With a Garden Centipede. All friends together.
They don't eat like an elephant, though. For most Springtails, good eating is comprised of rot and germs. Like a lot of these soil dwellers they feast on decaying detritus and fungus, and they're also small enough to make a meal out of microbes. I suppose if you're almost microscopic, things that are microscopic begin to look quite appetizing. Or terrifying.

Other Springtails feed on algae and some are carnivorous, preying on tiny worms or other Springtails. The country boy done wrong. There are also some who feed on plants. In fact, they can gather in such stupendous numbers as to become a serious agricultural pest. It's difficult to picture it...

Image: Grisvert (J-S Bouchard) via Flickr
Snow Fleas. Lots of them.
But then you see the Springtails known as Snow Fleas, a million billion of them covering the snow like soot and you start to realise the kind of numbers we're talking about here. Big numbers. With lots of zeros.

Image: robbersdog via Flickr
So what does a Springtail look like if you can get close enough?

Image: Biopix: G Drange
Well, for a start they have six legs and a pair of antennae, just like insects. But they're not actually considered insects. Springtails belong to their own subclass called Collembola, all because they have internal mouthparts rather than the external ones that insects can't help but show off.

Within Collembola are three main groups:

Image: Mvuijlst
Entomobryomorpha are the slimmest of the lot and look the most like scurrying insects.

Image: Steve Hopkin
Poduromorpha are a little more oval in shape and look all podgy and cuddly.

Image: Gilles San Martin via Flickr
Most fun of all, Symphypleona are aptly known as the Globular Springtails.

Do you know what else they might look like? Absolutely nothing at all. As if they were never there. Like you imagined the whole thing in your creepy-crawly imagination. It's not because they're invisible, nor is it necessarily because you've finally gone completely mad. No. Well, maybe that second one, but no. It's because Springtails have a spring in their tail. Who'd've thunk it?


Includes incredibly strange hosepipe thing.

Slung along the underside of most Springtails is a two-pronged fork called the furcula. It's held under tension by a little appendage called the retinaculum. When this is released, the fork hits the ground and our little Springtail is heroically catapulted through the air, leaping over an apportioned skyscraper in a single bound, flying flying and then falling falling.

They have no control at all over where they land, so it's only used in dire straits when they're stuck between a rock and the empty void of the unknown. However, when a predatory mite or giant magnifying glass gets too close, it's a great way of simply disappearing from right under their nose.

Image: smccann via Flickr
Springtails are so utterly teensy it's hard to imagine a baby one, but they exist alright. Springtails mate by the male depositing a spermatophore for the female to pick up. For some, the male just drops them around the place, which a little immature, but I guess the females deem it adequate for their purposes. In other species the male actually waits until a female appears to show some interest, then he'll drop his stuff around with a bit more aim.


Still others go through a courtship beforehand, which I'm sure is the most romantic part of the whole affair.

But there is yet another group of Springtails who don't bother with any of this. It's mostly the ones who live deeper in the soil, in the darker, more claustrophobic levels. Here, there are those who require no males at all. They have allied themselves with our old nemesis, the unholy, bacterial parasite known as Wolbachia. Now in a symbiotic relationship, that dark Lord of Loins has bequeathed upon thom the ability to produce young via parthenogenesis. And on their own heads be it.

Image: myriorama via Flickr
However they do it, young Springtails look just like their parents. They eat and grow and moult, shedding their old exoskeleton for a nice new one that better fits their slightly less tiny physique. Eventually, they stop growing. But they keep moulting! They can continue shedding their skin dozens of times for no apparent reason. Imagine if they kept getting bigger every time! They'd be, like, normal size after a while.

4 comments:

blablabla said...

Can you also tell us about some weird prehistoric animals, like Thalassocnus?

Comment1 said...

Hi! Thanks for the suggestion. I might do something like that but I'd prefer to find a different way of doing it. Thalassocnus is interesting and it gives me an idea, I'll have to find some more like that!

Michael Knauer said...

This blog post reminds me of my children several years back, when I would closely at the sidewalk and see hundreds of tiny red dots scurrying about (and I would occasionally squish one or more with my fingers). However, I'm not sure if those were spring tails or not (when you see something that is about the size, if not smaller than the dot of this 'i', you can't tell what it is at all).

Joseph Jameson-Gould said...

It sounds like they may have been velvet mites of some kind. But yeh, there are so many tiny things around. At least you know they're there when they scurry in their hundreds. If it was just the one, lonesome one you'd never have known!

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