Nature News from GYE #48

April 11, 2023 Could it be that we are seeing some signs of Spring? A few days in the 50s is beginning to reduce some of the piles of snow. My driveway is clear! Starting to hear some bird song and the snow fleas are gathering on the surface of snow….do you remember the story of snow fleas from some of the first Nature News 3 years ago? You’ll read more about them below…..

Snow fleas (also called Springtails) are commonly seen on the surface of snow as the days begin to warm. These critters can be found speckling the snow around the base of trees or in depressions such as ski tracks or animal tracks (or where snow “bombs” have landed). In dense pockets it can look like someone emptied a pepper grinder. On closer inspection, the individal pepper flecs are popping up and landing in a different spot! Or even just moving along in a staggering fashion.

These small creatures happen to look a lot like fleas, and their jumping movements (similar to real fleas) give them one of their common names, Snow flea. However, they are not annoying, parasitic insects that torment out domestic dogs and cats and other wild creatures. Springtails’ (snow fleas) tiny legs are not capable of aiding in any kind of propelling action, unlike true fleas that use powerful legs to jump.
Snow fleas launch into the air from a tail-like body part that is bent to fit into a “latch” under their abdomen. Like a spring ready to be sprung, when released this tail-like body part will catapult the snow flea into the air — up to 100 times its own body length. This sort of “tail” (called a furcula) is responsible for their jumping. As the furcula unfolds, it launches the snow flea over large distances — hence the name “springtail.” (or “springs”)
By the way…. If a 6-foot-tall human could do the same, that’s the equivalent of jumping the length of two football fields in one jump.

Green arrows point to Furcula and “Latch” where the furnicula releases to allow the “springing” action
Drawing by Leslie Mertz
Springtails in an animal track

Snow fleas prefer moist living conditions and are thought to be one of the most abundant macroscopic animals with estimates of up to 100,000 per square meter of ground. They are considered arthropods. Here’s a definition of artropod I found:
any of a phylum of invertebrate animals (as insects, arachnids, and crustaceans) having a segmented body, jointed limbs, and a shell of chitin that is shed periodically. Other examples of artropods include: Lobsters, crabs, spiders, mites, insects, centipedes, millipedes and of course, springtails. About 84 percent of all known species of animals are members of this phylum.

Reading about these little creatures, I learned they are related to similar arthropods, all called springtails (Collembola), which all have this short forked tail folded underneath called a furcula. As described earlier, this spring-like structure, when released, launches the springtails several inches into the air. Did one ever imagine “arthropods” could be so cool?
They typically live in moist, decomposing or very organic soil around the base of trees and other vegetation. They are called “detritiovores”, meaning they obtain nutrients by comsuming decomposing organic matter including leaf litter, mosses, bacteria, fungi and pollen. It’s very difficult to find them other than in this time of year with warming temps when they come to the surface and are seen on the while backround of snow.

One more little thing about these “springs”….
They survive winter by creating a sort of “antifreeze” in their little bodies. This is a natural protein called natural antifreeze proteins (AFPs) which prevent ice growth and crystallization of organic fluid matter. Without this antifreeze, Springs would suffer from frost damage and even death.
Amphibians and reptiles hibernate near the soil surface where temperatures can drop below the freezing point of their blood. These animals have the ability to create a biological antifreeze in their bodies as well that prevents ice from forming in their blood. We do not have these proteins which is why we get frostbite. Frostbite happens when ice crystals form between our cells, which dehydrates the cells and causes them to collapse.

So, next time you are out in the woods as the snow is warming up, look for these black specs on the surface and on closer inspection, you’ll see exactly what I have just described!

Heres a fun youtube video if you are interested:

Tis the season for Spring biking in Yellowstone before the west gate opens to any vehciles other than administrative traffic. This will include heavy construction vehicles working on park construction projects.
Look at the official park news about this time of year below…..

Photo by Neal Herbert

Roads have been cleared after winter season and, as mentioned earlier, temperatures are warming. It is a very unique experience to see this time in YNP. You may see other travelers such as walkers, joggers, roller skis and roller blades. Wear a helmet and high visibility clothing.
Other things to remember are we are sharing the roads with year round residents such as Bison, Coyotes and possibly Bears just coming out of hibernation. Be sure to have bear spray easily accessable. Odds are low, but not impossible to see a bear around the roads.

Below you’ll see official Park Service suggestions:
Travel self-contained as there are no facilities or services provided, i.e., be prepared to repair a flat tire or make repairs. Travel between Madison and Old Faithful (bear-management area) will be closed until the third Friday in April. Travel between Norris to Canyon may be prohibited due to weather conditions. Wild animals have the right-of-way and can be dangerous and unpredictable . Do not approach, chase, molest or feed wildlife. Be prepared for rapid weather changes. Prevailing winds blow from the west making the ride toward Madison far easier and more comfortable than the return trip. The West Entrance road is NOT maintained on a regular basis; you may encounter intermittent snow and ice on the roadway. The road between Madison and Norris is narrow, winding, has no road shoulders, and numerous potholes. Use extreme caution! —–Please enjoy the park safely—–

Despite all these warnings, a morning ride into the park in the right conditions and when you are aware of what to expect is an experience like no other. Below you will see a few images of rides through the west gate where very few vehicles are on the road.

West gate of Yellowstone Park today
Always be aware of one’s surroundings!
Bear Tracks in Spring
riding with friends this morning

Once again, we are reminded how these open space areas like Yellowstone are significant to our personal well being and the lives of so many other creatures with who we share this planet. May this Greater Yellowstone region stay protected from development and other impacts and be a refuge for all the species that survive here.

Enjoy your spring, Leslie

One Comment

  1. How beautiful! What a great time of year!

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