One beautiful winter day, while belaying at the base of a frozen waterfall in the Adirondacks, I noticed an ice climber from another party crawling around on his hands and knees in two feet of snow mumbling something about fleas. Shortly, his partner started the same behaviour. These ice climbers get stranger every day, I thought. I ignored them, hoping they would go away. Eventually, they wandered off. 

It was about an hour later, while belaying, bored with the slow progress of my partner, that I noticed tiny movement in the snow. Tiny black specks about the size of pepper were jumping around on the surface of the snow. I realized now that the other climbing party had been crawling in the snow to get a better look at these creatures. Perhaps they were not crazy after all. I did the same, while also trying to give a good belay; not too hard since nothing much was happening above. 

Hundreds of these tiny creatures were jumping on the snow surface. In my life, I have spent a fair amount of time outdoors in the winter but had never noticed these creatures before. None of the others in my group had seen them before or new anything about them. 

When I returned home, using the clue given by the madman from the other party, I looked up "Snow Fleas" on the Internet. Apparently, they are not fleas, but tiny wingless Springtails that occasionally swarm onto the surface of the snow. The species is ancient, apparently existing over 400 million years ago. A spring like mechanism on their abdomen allows it to be catapulted dozens of times its own length. The ones I saw launched themselves about 8 inches into the air. There are over 2000 species of Springtail in North America, the most common being the Snow flea. Snow fleas spend most of their lives on the forest floor, participating in breaking down leaf matter available there. Even though they exist in great numbers on the forest floor, they are hard to detect. Their presence becomes more obvious in winter when they make their way to the snow surface and begin their acrobatics.

Unlike the aggravating Mosquito or the obnoxious Black Flies, both of which seem intent on making climbers lives miserable, the Snow Flea is a good insect, seemingly content to share the place peacefully with us.

Some say they are feeding on microscopic material on the snow surface. Others say that they are performing mating dances. Still others claim that they are in the process of a migration that takes them a few days to move to a place only a few hundred feet from their starting point. Perhaps they are doing all of these things or perhaps they have come to the surface, like us, to revel in a fine day and the beauty of the place.

Bob Bennell
Oct 2001

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