Leonard called me to come see something fascinating in one of the lanes between our pastures (Modoc County CA). Of course, I grabbed my camera as I headed out the door. Neither Leonard nor I know much about entomology – but something interesting is something interesting. There along the lane were about ten individual “swarms” of what I believe to be springtails. About two hours later the springtail clusters had completely disappeared.
Springtails are primitive, wingless arthropods (having exoskeletons, jointed appendages and a segmented body) with six legs and internal mouth parts. Although disagreement still exists, springtails are no longer considered insects and now belong to the class Collembola.
There are more than 700 species of springtails in North America and over 2,000 species worldwide. Generally springtails are small (usually only a millimeter or two long), have long, slender bodies and two antennae. Except for size, springtail nymphs and adults look similar. Adults continue to moult even after reaching maturity. Most are dark colored (brown, grey, black), however some are white or brightly colored and variously patterned.
A unique feature of springtails, and one from which they get their common name, is a furcola on the underside of their abdomen – a hinged appendage that is bent forward and held in place by a “latch” called a tenaculum. When the furcola is released it springs down catapulting the springtail 3 to 4 inches in one motion. The springtail has no control over the direction in which it moves.
Although many species of springtails inhabit soil where their food is decaying vegetation, pollen, fungi, bacteria, algae, lichen and insect feces, collembolas are found in any moist habitats. Springtails “breathe” and water enters their bodies through their thin external covering. Since moisture also passes out through the body covering, sprintails are quite sensitive to dessication. Springtails often congregate on the top of the soil in masses containing thousands of individuals. There is some speculation that these masses help the springtails conserve moisture – I wonder?
Harmless to humans, springtails do not bite or sting. They can become a nuisance though when present in large numbers in moist areas of houses (bathrooms, plumbing leaks and damp basements) or in plant soil.
With our limited knowledge, Leonard and I cannot identify these springtails further.