Missoula hasn’t seen a lot of snow this winter, at least, not nearly as much as I would like; in fact, this winter has been so mild that insect sightings are already coming in, but knowing Montana, that could all change in the coming weeks. But the arrival of snow doesn’t mean every insect goes dormant; some not only survive in a snow-covered landscape, but thrive in it. I’m talking, of course, about the snow flea.

Snow fleas are not actually fleas; they’re not even insects! They belong to a group of arthropods called springtails, and along with the orders Protura and Diplura comprise the class Entognatha (meaning “internal mouthparts,” as opposed to insects, whose mouthparts are external). The common name “snow flea” comes from their jumping capabilities. Unlike fleas, however, springtails do not use their legs to catapult themselves; they use a specialized appendage known as a furcula. The furcula is folded under the body and held under tension. When it is released, the force of the furcula snapping against the ground propels the snow flea into the air.

The really remarkable trait of the snow flea (in my opinion) is not its jumping ability, but its ability to thrive in such wintery conditions. Remember the antifreeze protein we discussed in a previous issue? The snow fleas antifreeze capabilities have sparked such a fascination in scientists that researchers at Queen’s University decided to sequence and synthesize the protein.

Ice crystals in normal ice cream (top left) grow dramatically when it is partially thawed and refrozen (top right), but when “edible antifreeze” proteins are added (bottom left), the crystals grow very little (bottom right)

(Image: Srinivasan Damodaran/ACS)

Why, you might ask? Researchers hope to utilize the snow flea antifreeze protein in such freezer-related tasks as producing better ice cream and transplant organ storage and transport. I am all for medical breakthroughs but honestly, they had me at “better ice cream.”