Springtails A-poppin!

Its my spring break, and while my big brother was here from California exercising the kids  I was fooling around with insect pit traps.  Partly this is me trying to come up with bullet proof projects that will allow students in my non-science majors Biology labs to collect real data, partly this is me just copying my office-mate and colleague, partly this is trying to figure out a way to look for differences underneath Black Walnut trees that I just KNOW are there,  and part of this is just good old 4th grade fun and for sure this is me abusing the English language in a way that I would not accept from my students.

How to cause the indiscriminate mass murder of hundreds, and possibly thousands of beautiful tiny animals, some of which may be so far undescribed by humans:

1.  Obtain a blue-tinted party cup and some isopropyl alcohol


The HO-scale model train is optional

2.  Dig a small hole in the backyard about the same size as the cup.  Pour a small amount of isopropyl alcohol in party cup, place in hole.  Be sure that the dirt comes right up to the lip of the cup to encourage careless, stupid or distraught insects to fall over the edge of a cliff that is approximately 150 to 500 body lengths high.  That would be 900-3,000 feet high for me.  Perhaps a tiny microphone could be setup to record their screams.


3.  After ~24 hours, pour volunteers victims specimens onto paper towel (later found that making a funnel out of white printer paper works better).


4.  Inspect with child’s microscope kindly provided by generous colleague

It's as plastic as it looks, but it works.

It’s as plastic as it looks, but it works.

5.  Fight with your kids for control of the microscope.

Damned cup

I am blown away by how many springtails there were in this lil cup of alcohol and how diverse they are (hard to get head shots of these with this toy microscope).  “Springtails” are an Order (Kingdom Phylum Class Order), which means there are many diverse species within the group.  For comparison, humans are in the Order Primates, and I believe that we are a pretty species-poor Order compared to just about any group of insects (little help here?).  Apparently springtails eat soil fungi and their presence or absence is used as a barometer of the presence of toxic chemicals in the environment (including the completely natural ones made by plants themselves).  I reset the trap this morning, couldn’t make myself wait and collected it after only 4 hours and there were HUNDREDS of springtails in it.  Thus the title.

Oh, and maybe the coolest of all: The fossil record of springtails goes back to the begining of the Devonian Period, which began about 420 million years ago. These things make humans primates mammals look like a flash in the pan.



About SubOptimist

I am an Associate Professor in the Science Department at Georgia Perimeter College, Clarkston. I teach introductory biology courses at both the majors and non-majors level in addition to microbiology. Previous to that I spent 7 years as a postdoctoral researcher on different viruses. While I don't miss being on the "grant treadmill", I think better when I write and miss writing up data for papers and grants; this blog helps me with that a little. And sometimes my kids' insanely funny and cute antics need to be shared with the world. Any view expressed in this blog is that of me personally and not Georgia Perimeter College or the GPC Clarkston Science Department.
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2 Responses to Springtails A-poppin!

  1. Dale Hoyt says:

    It’s better if you use two nested cups for your pit traps. The outer cup will keep the soil from falling in when you remove the inner cup with your catch. Then you just put more preservative in the inner cup and drop it back in the outer cup.

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