Winter’s Tiny Surprises

For many of us, winter in Michigan is known for the calm feeling that snow brings. If you’ve ever spent time in a forest during winter, you know how quiet it can feel. Just a few birds chirping and the trees creaking as they sway in the wind.

But there is much more happening in the snow than meets the eye. In addition to mammals whose footprints you may see bounding through the snow—like rabbits, mice, and squirrels—there are also several much smaller species that you may be surprised to learn, thrive in winter as well.

Snow fleas

No, not the kind that will happily hitch a ride and live on your pets. Snow fleas are actually more closely related to crustaceans but, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, are so-called because of the visual similarity and ability to jump long distances respective to their size much like fleas.

Snow fleas—or “springtails” if you prefer—are an essential part of their ecosystem, helping to create healthy topsoil as they feed on decaying organic matter like leaves. Though snow fleas are active throughout the year, they are much easier to spot in winter as tiny bluish-black dots starkly contrasted against the white snow, especially on warmer days as the snow begins to melt.

Snow fleas gather in a boot print in the snow. Photo by Robb Johnston.

Snow mosquitoes

If you love the cooler months for the lack of blood-sucking insects, you may be disappointed to learn that there is a special species of mosquito active in the winter months. But unlike the mosquitoes we typically see in the summer that feed on humans and animals, the males of the winter species get their sustenance from juices extracted from plants. Their eggs are then laid in pools of melting snow, and the larvae feed on algae as they mature.

(Left) A mosquito on spotted coralroot plant in summer, photo by Gary Hofing. (Right) Snow mosquito, photo by Lauren Ross.

Stoneflies

The larvae of stoneflies live deep in the cool water of rivers and streams, where oxygen is abundant. In the winter months when most other aquatic insects are absent and the surfaces of these bodies of water cool the stonefly is able to reach maturity, mating and laying their eggs over the course of approximately two weeks. As spring turns to summer and the surface water warms again, the hatched ‘nymphs’ enter a hibernation period which keeps them safe from predation so that they can mature when winter returns.

Nature in Michigan is full of life in all seasons. So although it may get quiet and harder to see when the snow falls, there is still much to be seen if you look closely enough. So leave the bug repellents at home and head out to an MNA Nature Sanctuary near you to explore all that Michigan nature has to offer this winter!