Blog post Tara Roth, Ph.D.

Fall Back, Spring(tails) Forward

When the temperatures start to change and the nights become colder, you may begin to notice six-legged visitors coming inside your home. As we shutter our doors and windows to keep out the cold, the humidity rises indoors.  This elevated humidity can attract insects and arthropods, including tiny insects called Collembola, or springtails.

Springtails are one of the most widespread and abundant insects on Earth and up to 250 million individuals have been found in a single square acre. They are one of the few insects that can be found in Antarctica and there are even a few species that are found only in the canopy of trees. The majority of springtails prefer damp leaf litter as they feed almost entirely on fungus and decaying plant and animal matter.

What makes springtails so unique is a small tubular appendage, called a furcula, tucked under their body. This appendage can be rapidly snapped against the ground, catapulting the springtail into the air as high as 100 times their body length. That would be like a human leaping across two football fields! They’re not able to control where they land, so this springing effect is almost entirely used to escape danger.

While some species of springtails are sometimes considered agricultural pests, others have been used as bioindicators for pollution. Some types of springtails are very sensitive to air and soil contamination.  By introducing a soil sample to springtails in the lab, scientists can tell whether the soil is polluted by watching to see if they avoid it. Scientists can also assess the level of pollution in an environment by surveying the density and diversity of springtails.

Some people claim that springtails can parasitize people but this simply isn’t true. Springtails just don’t have the right type of mouthparts to bite humans.  However, most people don’t like to see a large number of springtails indoors. While homes with serious mold and mildew issues may require more drastic measures to reduce humidity, simple practices like running the exhaust fan or opening a window while cooking and showering is usually enough to avoid indoor springtail infestations.

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