Springtails are six-legged (hexapods) wingless, creatures, generally 0.2 to 5 mm in length. They are not considered to be insects, although they share a common ancestor.
The main distinguishing feature is the springing organ (furca) which is attached to the abdomen and is normally folded up on the underside, where it is held, by a hook (tenaculum, also called retinaculum or hamulus). Release of the hook causes the furca to hurl the springtail violently upwards away from (or towards) danger.
The scientific name is Collembola from ‘coll’ (glue) and ‘embol’ (peg). This refers to another distinguishing feature, a tube which projects down from the underside of the abdomen, and is thought to exude a glue for adhesion on slippery surfaces. It is now accepted that the organ is also used in controlling fluid balance in the body.
Where do they Live?
Almost everywhere that there is sufficient moisture. They are particularly plentiful in woodland soil and leaf litter (100,000 per square metre has been quoted). Caves, lakesides and marine shorelines also harbour some species. Alpine and arctic snows are no barrier to them. What a very convenient group to study!
What do they feed on?
The majority of springtails feed on decaying vegetation and fungi, but some do eat young plants. A few species are predatory. They have an important role in recycling organic material and it is claimed that they are one of the few organisms capable of breaking down DDT in the soil. In cultures, yeast pellets and boiled potato and carrot have been successfully used.
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