Winter Bugs

11 Mar
Hypogastrura harveyiHarvard, Ma. Photo by Tom Murray

Hypogastrura harveyi
Harvard, Ma.
Photo by Tom Murray

While walking in the state forest this weekend I happened upon one of the first bugs of the season: the snow flea. In scientific circles it is called a Collembola and its technically not a flea or even an insect, but a hexapod. In common terms it is aptly called a springtail because uses a spring like appendage to hop around the snow.

The ones I saw were from the family Hypogastrura. These tiny dark blue, almost black, creatures were hopping around the snow under a hemlock tree. Interestingly I always find them under the hemlocks.

Most people don’t really pay much attention to springtails because they are small (less than 6 mm in length). But they are everywhere. They live on the forest floor, in your front lawn, near water, heck they are one of the most abundant soil dwelling arthropods on the earth. They are scavengers eating decaying plants and fungi that live in the soil. Because they are small they are at risk of drying out, so they always live near water or in a moist environment.

Globular Springtail: Image by Goshzilla

Globular Springtail: Image by Goshzilla

These little creatures are cute. Yes, cute bugs. I say this because their mouth parts are inside, so they have chubby little faces.

They also have an appendage called a furcula on the underside of the fourth abdominal segment. This furcla is held in place by a clasplike structure called the tenaculum. When the Collembola wants to move, the clasp is quickly released and the furcula snaps downward propelling the creature up to about 100 times its body length. How cool is that?

But wait there is more. Some researchers in Canada have sequenced a protein in Collembolas that allows them to live in the cold snowy conditions. They found it to be rich in glycine—like the stuff used in anti-freeze for your car, but it’s a protein. The next step is to explore this protein’s potential because it has the possibility of being used as a storage agent for transplant organs so ice crystals don’t form in the tissues. And of course they are looking at using it for making ice cream that doesn’t get freezer burn. Yum.

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Posted by on March 11, 2013 in Nature Curios


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