See more of the story

On a warm winter day when the air temperature is above 27 degrees, in a snow covered forest and especially one near a wetland, people who are interested in one of nature's most primitive insects on Earth should look at the snow near the bases of trees.

Often there will be a mass of black specks, each about 3 millimeters long, which resemble sprinkled pepper. They are six-legged snow fleas.

Winter is the best season to study them. Their springlike action gave them the name "springtail," too. The name springtail refers to the two appendages they have on their last body segment, like two extra legs. The appendages are folded against their abdomens and held in place with two clasps. When the clasps open, the appendages spring against the ground, propelling the insect a couple of inches.

Many times as a naturalist while working out of Lowry Nature Center near Victoria, I was able to show groups of people of all ages these tiny creatures. Often the snow fleas were as thick as 500 to the square foot on level surfaces. But when they accumulate in hollows and depressions such as deer footprints, they can become a solid mass that could be dipped out with a spoon.

Jim Gilbert taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.