Nova Scotia

Despite its name, the winter-loving snow flea is nothing to fear

Entomologist Suzanne Blatt says the snow flea, also known as the springtail, isn't interested in you or your pets.

'Glycine-rich, anti-freeze proteins' allow bug-like creatures to withstand very low temperatures

Snow fleas, also known as springtails, love the sunshine and move from the dirt to the top layer of snow to feed on algae and fungi. (Harvey Schmidt)

The tiny black critters you may have noticed crawling on top of the snow this time of year go by an unfortunate name: snow fleas.

But entomologist Suzanne Blatt said unlike their blood-sucking brethren, they aren't interested in you or your pets.

In fact, they're not actually fleas. Or insects for that matter.

Instead, they are a kind of a cousin that shares some insect attributes.

"Your little Collembola, or your springtails, they look more like a very small earwig, only they're cuter," Blatt with Agriculture and Agrifood Canada told CBC's Information Morning.

While snow fleas can be found all across North America in all seasons, they tend to be most noticeable in the late winter when they climb up from the dirt in the direction of the sun.

Bodies contain anti-freeze

Their nickname comes from their ability to withstand temperatures as low as zero degrees, a feat made possible by a powerful protein that's coursing through their tiny bodies.

"They've got this really neat glycine-rich, anti-freeze proteins floating around their bodies and what that does is it prevents the water that is in their systems from actually freezing," said Blatt.

Once the snow flea senses things are beginning to thaw, it moves from its mud-bound home to feed on algae and fungi in snow. If you have a compost pile in your background, chances are you've seen them. 

"They have no interest in humans. They have no interest in your pets. They may prefer things really, really dead," said Blatt.

"They are very much important in our ecosystem to distribute the nutrients … and they can help to keep the microbes populations in check."

While fleas use their legs to hop around, the springtail leaps around using "this adorable little fork which curls underneath their body and it's called a furcula."

Blatt believes there's much we can learn from these winter-hardy hexapods. (Harvey Schmidt)

Blatt, who talks about insects the way most of us talk about our pets, believes there's much we can learn from the winter-hardy hexapods.

"The fact that they're incredibly resistant and they tolerate all kinds of conditions and keep on kicking and moving forward and reproducing and just generally living, I think is motivational right there," she said.

And who couldn't use a little motivation this time of year?

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With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning

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