High: 27°FAri always loves digging in the snow. But this past week, she’s been strangely diligent in her grubbing. What’s even more unusual about this new project is her approach: instead of burrowing her snout deep in the drifts and flinging snow with cavalier delight, she hovers near the surface, tweaking the ground cover now and again with Thoreauvian deliberation.
Low: 7° F
Conditions: Partly cloudy with light northwestern winds.
The locus of her interest? This:
Certainly not at first glance—or even second or third glance. But here’s the thing: these specks move. And not only do they move, they launch into the air, fling themselves about, pirouette, then fall back to the ground, only to become an inert speck once again.
The first time this happened, caninaturalist and human were equally perplexed. The second time, said human began to question her sanity. But the caninaturalist knew better. She stopped and scrutinized. And then she discovered that simply applying a little paw pressure was all it took to reanimate the specks. Snow fleas. Fantastic!
Now make no mistake about it, we’re no fans of most fleas. Two years ago, we had an outbreak of the more provincial version of this critter, and no one in the house found much charming about the springing, the itching, the bugging of it all. Happily, this species is different. A member of the Collembola family, the Hypogastrura nivicola is referred to in some parts of the U.S. as a "springtail." And not without good reason: the snow flea actually has two coiled tails underneath its body. By springing them, it can leap over a foot into the air. We found this artist’s rendering of the tiny arthropod on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources home page:
Just a millimeter or two in length, the snow flea is a mostly omnivorous arthropod who isn't even really a flea. Maybe that's why it turns its nose up at dog flanks and human ankles. Instead, it seems to much prefer forest litter like bark and downed leaves. And, unlike its insidious cousin the common flea (Ctenocephalides felis), Hypogastrura nivicola does perfectly fine outside in a cold Maine winter. All it takes is a little sunshine and relative warmth for him to surface and start a bacchanal dance. And that, I have learned, is all it takes for my caninaturalist dog to begin her own two-step. If these twirls and jigs get us a little bit closer to spring, I'm happy to join in too.