Tiny water creatures

2008-08-14 00:00

Springtails are minute creatures that few people can claim to have noticed. These fascinating animals belong to a group called Collembola and while some scientists consider them to be insects, they are often classified in a group all on their own.

The reason I decided to chat about these tiny beasts is that I recently encountered thousands, maybe even millions of specimens and was able to photograph them. When I say tiny, I mean it — you could probably accommodate a dozen on the head of a pin. While springtails are found in a variety of habitats, those that I encountered were swarming over the surfaces of a few small pools of sea water adjacent to the beach at Shaka’s Rock. One of the photos shows what you could describe as a grey film on the water surface. While a gentle breeze was causing this film to move around the pool, on closer inspection the grey film was literally seething with the movements of millions of minute grey-bodied springtails.

I brought a tiny sample home with me to photograph through my microscope and the second photo gives you an impression of what these tiny creatures look like. Many of the species that inhabit our gardens, and indeed virtually everywhere, are poorly known and difficult to identify, but those I photographed are commonly found along our coastline and go by the name Anurida maritima. My field guide provides some interesting information about them. For instance this species is described as “carnivorous” as they are apparently found scavenging on dead or dying animals. Although they live in association with water they are not aquatic and can drown if submerged. They are, however, well adapted for life on the surface of water as they are covered with tiny scales that repel water. While this adaptation clearly helps them to avoid drowning, it doesn’t help them to avoid desiccation so they have had to evolve a special tube on their undersides that allows water to be taken up into their bodies.

I have come this far without mentioning the reason they are called springtails, so I need to put that right. These tiny creatures are excellent jumpers. Another of my books states that springtails can leap eight inches‚ — that’s 20 centimetres. For an animal of this size that is almost unbelievable. That’s about 200 times their body length and equivalent to a human jumping 400 metres. Be that as it may, it’s the way they jump that is really interesting.

They have a special organ called a furca that juts out of the underside of their bodies near their hind ends. This tail-like appendage is usually folded up under the body, but when flicked downwards propels the creature through the air. You can see these organs in my close-up photo, but I hasten to add that this species has a tiny furca when compared to others that I have seen.

The distance that can be jumped is certainly proportional to the size of the furca and so it is not surprising that this species is a relatively poor jumper.

You may be asking why I am talking about an animal that does not live in our concrete jungle. While A. maritima may not venture into gardens, many other springtails do. There is a very similar species that behaves exactly like the coastal species but is found on the surface of ponds and swimming pools. The majority of species are, however, associated with places like compost heaps, leaf litter or soil with lots of decaying vegetable matter in it.

If you want to see some of these creatures get a cup full of damp compost and tip it out onto a sheet of white paper. You can see these tiny animals with the naked eye, but a good magnifying glass would be a great help. Unlike A. maritima most of our garden species are vegetarians and serve us well as decomposers when they are not being hunted down and eaten by a large variety of other tiny creatures.

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