Snow fleas are very small insects more properly known as springtails or scorpion flies. These tiny, unique creatures earned their name because they appear to jump like a flea and can most easily be spotted when sitting on snow. The two very similar species of snow fleas belong to the Mecoptera group, which is among the oldest scientific insect orders. As natural decomposers, these insects live in damp areas with plenty of organic matter.
Although against a pale background such as snow they appear to jump much like a flea, they do not, in fact, jump at all in the conventional sense. Snow fleas have a stiff, stick-like appendage attached to either side about halfway down the body that hook up underneath the body. When the snow flea wants to move, it releases the appendages which hit the ground, flinging the very light snow flea into the air up to two inches, which is an incredible distance given that the insect only measures 1/16 of an inch in length. The problem with this mode of transportation is that it is very unreliable, as the snow flea is unable to exert any control in the distance or direction of its movement.
Snow fleas are comparatively simple organisms, belonging to one of the oldest recognized scientific insect orders. The two recognized species of snow fleas, the Eurasian snow flea — Boreus hyemalis — and the North American species — Hypogastrura nivicola — are part of the Mecoptera order, which dates back about 300,000,000 years. Snow fleas have the characteristic mouth parts of the Mecoptera order, located at the end of a long, slender tube which projects downward from the front of the head.
In addition to having proven very valuable to the environment, snow fleas also have other unique characteristics making them of interest to scientific research. The tiny insects are decomposers, meaning that they feed off of dead organic matter such as leaf mulch, mosses, and dead plants, making them very valuable to the environment as they aid in the decomposition process, releasing the nutrients contained in the organic matter back into the soil. As a result of their feeding habits, snow fleas can generally be found in mulch piles, in damp and mossy areas, and particularly around the base of tree trunks. Their tiny bodies also contain a unique protein that prevents them from freezing during sub-zero temperatures, allowing them to continue decomposing organic matter all year round, which has made them the subject of scientific interest.