Snow Fleas photo courtesy National Geographic. Copyright 2004.
I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard my mother-in-law say, "Oh, probably just snow fleas."
I mean, who ever heard of such things?
My wife had mentioned how she saw some small birds, possibly the Sitta Carolinensis (white-breasted nuthatcher, whose song is a series of single pitch nasal whistle sounds) or the Troglodytes Troglodytes (winter wren, whose song consists of a quick succession series of ultra-high pitch trills), eating or pecking at freshly fallen late winter snow.
"Do some birds eat snow?" my wife asked her mom. "Or is there something on the snow they're after?"
"Oh, probably just snow fleas," her mom replied. "They swarm on top of freshly fallen snow, often near tree trunks or piles of frozen autumn leaves. The fleas do a jig on the snow crust, which attracts the birds."
I was taken aback by that "do a jig" remark. How could she know what the snow fleas are doing? How could she even be sure such a thing as snow fleas exist? And how did they learn how to dance such a complex routine as a jig?
No. This was too strange.
I felt oddly lost, slightly insane, as though I had somehow stepped into the Twilight Zone.
But sure enough, one morning, right after some snow had lightly covered the backyard, I went up to a stump, and there they were. Snow fleas.
I thought I saw some. It was a dark patch on the snow.
I ran back inside and grabbed my large handheld magnifying glass, which I had purchased by mail order from Edmund Scientific Supplies Company.
Yes! I could see them hopping around on the snow crust. It was a jig, too, not a waltz, tarantella, or foxtrot. The little bugs were doing a springy dance, in triple time, to mysterious, and unheard music.
Then I got my expensive studio microphone, which I ran through a guitar distortion effect to amplify the signal...
...(a trick I learned when I conducted audio surveillance on girls at parties when they went into a bedroom, shut the door, and confessed bizarre sex experiments to each other, while my buddy and I listened through my stereo speakers that the distortion enhanced microphone fed into).
I ran the microphone cord into the distortion effect box, then ran a cable from it to my stereo system, and turned the effect level all the way up, to amplify the sound of the snow fleas.
There was a peculiar, but definite, music accompanying the jig.
I grabbed a blank cassette tape, and started recording it.
The music was indeed triple time, and quite strange. I can't even describe what it sounded like, some sort of cross between a violin and a tuba, a thumping, high pitch, low tone pulsation. It mesmerized me. I grew addicted to it.
It got so bad that I spent all my time doing nothing but observing the snow fleas doing their delicate and delightful jigs, recording the musical accompaniment, and then listening to it over and over again.
"So, what's up?" a friend asked me as I took a seat at the little tavern near my home. They have great garlic beer cheese and crackers, provided free. I love going there to have a few beers once or twice a month. A cozy little rec room type bar called "The Gang's All Here Tavern".
I looked at him with haughty disdain.
"You wouldn't understand," I stated. I pulled the cheese crock and crackers closer to me, so I could begin eating.
"Wouldn't understand what?" Jerry asked.
He was smiling with an amused, I-wonder-what-weirdness-he's-into-now type smirk.
"Anything." I growled with cheese and cracker spilling out of my mouth, chunks tumbling down my already soiled shirt. I had stopped bathing and changing my clothes months ago, I was so intensely into my new hobby.
"I wouldn't understand anything?" he reflected out loud. "So, you're saying I'm stupid or queer?"
"That's for you to decide," I mumbled as I stuffed more cheese and cracker down my gullet and washed the mashy mess down with amber bock.
"How about I decide to give you an early birthday present?" Jerry asked as he grabbed my shoulder, swung me around, and landed a hefty fist squarely and succinctly into my bread basket. I slumped over, moaning, my stomach on fire with sudden pain.
Soon, just a mere second later in fact, I felt his meaty fist clobber me again, this time on the back of my slouched head as I bent down toward the floor to vomit in agony.
A sizeable porton of not-yet-digested anchovie and onion omelette spewed out of my mouth, as I thought to myself: "So that's what I had for breakfast."
For some reason I couldn't quite remember, and my inability to identify the morning entree had bugged me as I was walking to the tavern.
My eyes started spinning in their sockets.
"Chump," Jerry barked at me as he kicked me in the groin. "Idiot. Know-it-all."
Needless to say, cheese and cracker began upheaving violently from my gut, along with the last remnants and oozings of my breakfast.
"I ain't no uneducated fool," Jerry announced to the whole bar, but primarily to me. "I can understand things, lots of things, lots more than you think I can."
This time he shoved me down on the floor and began to dance a jig on my torso.
"That's the snow fleas jig," I gurgled incoherently. I doubt that anyone could hear or understand what I was trying to communicate.
"The what? Are you making fun of me again, you son of a bitch?" I heard Jerry ask as blood streamed out of my ears and nose.
"Snow fleas jig," I gasped as best I could, given my distraught condition. "The clever little dance they do on the snow crust. I've got, I've got the music to it..."
Jerry was even angrier now that I was interpreting his mauling as a dance routine performed by fleas. He figured I was saying that it didn't hurt or bother me much, although it did.
"Now you're saying I'm a stinky, flea-bitten sack of shit? I'll show you something about fleas," he replied in a bad and worsening mood.
I could tell that this was not going to be one of my better days.THE ENDSCIENTIFIC POST SCRIPT from Cornell University
The insect nicknamed the "snow-flea" is not a flea at all, but instead is a species of springtail that may occur in very large numbers on the snow.
In some instances they may be so numerous as to color the snow black. In British Columbia there is a minute yellow springtail that is said to cover the snow with a "carpet of gold."
The snow-flea Achorutes nivicola Fitch was written about as early as 1847 by Asa Fitch.
He wrote of it:
"This is an abundant species in our forests in the winter and fore part of spring. At any time in the winter, whenever a few days of mild weather occur, the surface of the snow, often, over whole acres of woodland, may be sprinkled more or less thickly with these minute fleas, looking at first sight, as though gunpowder had been there scattered.
Hollows and holes in the snow, out of which the insects are unable to throw themselves readily, are often black with multitudes which here become imprisoned. The fine meal-like powder with which their bodies are coated, enables them to float buoyantly upon the surface of water, without becoming wet.
When the snow is melting so as to produce small rivulets coursing along the tracks of the lumberman's sleigh, these snow-fleas are often observed, floating passively in its current, in such numbers as to form continuous strings; whilst the eddies and still pools gather them in such myriads as to wholly hide the element beneath them."
Later he included an additional note:
"In the early spring the buckets and troughs of the manufacturer of maple sugar are often thronged with these insects."
Although springtails are very common insects and often very abundant, they are seldom observed. Their small size and the fact that they are often found in concealed situations keeps them out of view for most of us.
Springtails occur in leaf mold, damp soil, under bark, in decaying logs and in fungi. A few are found on water.
Most species are believed to feed on organic debris.
The "snow-fleas" need not be of concern to homeowners, as they do not cause any damage. Their abundance, and habit of crawling or "jumping" all over the place attracts attention, especially when they are contrasted against the white background of the snow.
This is one of the few insects that occur in the adult stage during the wintertime. It is a curiosity more than anything else, and is of interest to the naturalist as well as the scientist.
[signed] Steven Streight aka Vaspers the Grate