Sunday 11 November 2012


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.


blablabla said...

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

Joseph JG 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!

Porakiya 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 JG 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!

Wanda said...

Do they sting and bite humans? I got an infestation in our building and it was terrible, we moved 2 weeks ago but still feel something pinching me is a black speck, are they so small like a speck?

Joseph JG said...

They definitely can be extremely tiny. Never heard of them biting or stinging, though

Unknown said...

Well, They do bite. My labs came back and my scalp is infested with them. When I tried to use vinegar and water through my hair they started jumping onto my face and are in all my hair follicles in my face,neck, breast.stomach, legs feet. Everywhere. Just because you have labs showing you have them doesn't mean Doctors know how to treat them. When I finally got someone to listen, and the labs came out positive I was so infested with them everywhere even my colon that the Ivermectin hasn't helped. I heard the Military is using a product that takes the build up of metal out of your system which seems to draw them towards you. They can find me all the time and jumping on to me is incredibly accurate for them. Even after washing my clothes they will know my clothes compare to another person's that is folded on the couch. What makes them magnetic to metal? When I can get some out of my hair onto the tub it will sometimes sound like little pieces of metal dropping on the surface. You expect to see something extremely big, but it isn't it's small. Tiny. It seem they can be as light as a feather or heavy like the weights you could put on a fishing pole. Can you explain that to me? This has been going on a year. I have tsken notes and pictures after picture . They are fascinating incredible little creatures. I have incredible notes I would love to compare with somebody and ask questions. I just wish they could be fascinating somewhere other than on me. There are some I swear they look like there cartoon characters. Those ones don't look like bugs even I know they are. I have video of some that if I didn't have the video I would of thought I lost my mind.

Unknown said...

I would love to have someone to talk to about this and educate others currently waiting on my labs will get back to let you all know then going on now for about 3 years about done drove me crazy so I know what you all have been going through text back anytime thank you

CHRIS CPA said...

To Unknown above:
Sorry you continue to suffer from this plague. I would love to discuss further.
I believe I have what you describe.
My all my facial and arm hair stands straight up now,
Around dusk I feel crawling on my face. The doctor tried to tell me it was all in my head, but when I put Permethrin cream on my face (not advised but did it anyway)it stopped. Putting my face towards the sun stopped it too.
Lice treatment helped my scalp. I use salt nose wash too 2x times a day and showers with sodium laurate sulfide soaps is supposed to stop the lifecycle.
I have other ideas if you are still interested.

saint Nairns said...

Did you ever get rid of them and if so how?

saint Nairns said...

saint Nairns said...

Did you ever get rid of them and how? I believe I have the same issue for years and I can't get anyone to believe me let alone help. If you have any suggestions I would greatly appreciate your story and advice.

saint Nairns said...

Hello I'm interested in your story. Im dealing with a similar situation. Maybe we can help each other. Please email me if you can.

saint Nairns said...

E mail me if you can

Unrealistic said...

Ive been dealing with something for the last 10 months now & just realized that I have springtails in my hair!! It's a bit to much to deal with!! Everyone thinks I'm crazy & delusional & that it's not healthy to take pictures of my hair & keep combing with a lice comb & to take pics of the little black things & I do it to prove it's something & what's in my hair is the same exact pictures of springtails! Ughh ughh. I heard Diomatecious earth gets rid of them. Has anyone tried this? How did we become the lucky ones to get these& do they spread to other ppl like lice? I'm so clueless & if anyone can help me understand I would be grateful.