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Hidden housemates: springtails are everywhere, even in your home

Springtails come in variety of shapes and sizes. Springtail image from www.shutterstock.com

Hidden housemates: springtails are everywhere, even in your home

You’ve probably never heard of them, let alone seen them, but it’s likely you have some in your home. Springtails are only 1-2 mm long but are ubiquitous, found in every habitat except the oceans.

Springtails are closely related to insects – they have six legs and a head, thorax and abdomen – but are not insects because they lack wings and have soft bodies and hidden mouthparts. Springtails are known scientifically as Collembola.

Collembola are unique in carrying a jumping organ beneath the abdomen, held in place with hooks. When released, the jumping organ springs free, hitting the ground and forcing the animal to leap into the air, hence their common name.

In the wild, springtails can be found in leaf litter, soil, under bark, in sand, under stones, in tree canopies and even in caves and ant and termite nests. In termite nests they may control fungal growth. Most importantly, springtails have been shown to be useful bioindicators of environmental change.

Some male springtails perform a complex mating dance to attract the female. Other species are carried by insects for dispersal or feeding purposes.

A springtail mating dance as shown in David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth.

In Australia, there are several thousand species, most found only in this country. In any garden compost heap there will be millions of individuals belonging to about ten species. Native springtails may be brightly coloured and patterned; white, if living in soil; or black if living in exposed habitats such as mountain tops, beaches or coral reefs.

Native springtails can be brightly coloured - this is Acanthanura from Tasmania. Copyright Andy Murray
Another Tasmanian springtail, Temeritus. Copyright Andy Murray

Springtails in the home

Three species are commonly found inside buildings, all with an elongated bodies and belonging to the family Entomobryidae. These are introduced species, which were probably brought to Australia in soil and animal fodder before quarantine controls were put in place.

If you put sticky or water traps in a garage or shed, for instance, after only a day or two springtails should appear floating on the water or trapped in the glue. You might have to use a magnifying glass to see them.

Cellars invariably harbour several species. One unusual example was in a doctor’s surgery, where every morning springtails were found floating in the then-cooled water of the steriliser, having emerged overnight from their hiding place and fallen in.

This Entomobrya springtail is from the family often found in homes. Andy Murray/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Springtails are dispersed involuntarily in several ways. They can be transported in air currents and in flowing water in drains, as well as being carried in timber, packing materials and footwear, by domestic animals and on fresh vegetables and house plants. Species on vegetables could only become established in pot plant soil.

Household springtails feed on fungi and other microorganisms, which can be present in clean, relatively dry habitats such as within walls and under floors.

One species of springtail is sometimes found in baths and basins, having crawled up drain pipes. This species is most commonly observed in summer when conditions outside are particularly hot and dry, but cooler, moister conditions exist indoors.

Springtails only very rarely become a nuisance, not because they cause allergies or bite, but because they sometimes become extremely numerous in domestic situations. The few records of springtails being found on the human body have almost all been shown to be a case of mistaken identity.

If springtails become too numerous in a house, it is best to use normal cleaning methods, such as vacuuming carpets and sweeping floors to reduce populations. But if the source population is in walls or under floors, this won’t work.

Chemical methods may not be successful as, on the whole, these animals are resistant to pesticides. Instead, the source of the population should be found, which could be pot plant soil, adjacent garden soil, or debris under the floor, and the habitat cleaned out.

Domestic springtails are harmless to us and do not carry diseases. In the natural environment they are considered “goodies” as they are detritivores and contribute to nutrient cycling by breaking down organic matter by grazing on microorganisms on dead leaves and in logs.

In the home, therefore, springtails are not to be feared. In the wild, they play a valuable ecological role and many species are colourful and have intriguing habits.

This article is part of a series profiling our “hidden housemates”. Are you a researcher with an idea for a “hidden housemates” story? Get in touch.

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