The springtails are soft-bodied, oval or roundish shaped, primitive insects. Their bodies are made up of six or fewer segments and they lack wings. Although many species have small eyes, some are nearly or totally blind. Their antennae are segmented. They occur in a range of colors including whitish, yellowish, brown, gray, bluish, or black, and they may be mottled.
Collembola have biting mouthparts that are entognathous. That is, the mouthparts are mostly retracted into the head. Some springtails have mandibles with well-developed molars. Others are fluid feeders, having stylet-like mouthparts. For these springtails, on the ventral side of the first abdominal segment, there is a tube-like structure called a collophore. This structure is the site of water uptake.
A forked structure or furcula is located on the ventral side of the fourth abdominal segment. This structure is used to propel Collembola through the air. A springtail that is 3 to 6 mm long can leap 75 to 100 mm. When a springtail is at rest, the furcula is held in place by a clasp-like structure called the retinaculum that is located on the third abdominal segment.
There are at least 6500 species in this group. They occur worldwide. Seven familiies of Collembola occur in North America north of Mexico.
Springtails are mainly soil animals. They can be found in soil, leaf litter, fungi, caves, under snow fields, under the bark of trees, and decaying logs. In addition, they can be found on the surface of freshwater pools, along seashores, on vegetation, and in the nests of termites and ants.
Springtails can be found in extremely high numbers in a small area of soil or other organic material. For example, 100,000 springtails can be found per square meter of surface soil.
Development is ametabolous in that the only difference between nymphs and adults is size. That is, appearance is the same among all life cycle stages. In addition, development is epimorphic in that a constant number of segments is present among immature and adult forms. Springtails are sexually mature after five molts, and will continue to molt throughout their lifetime.
During drought conditions, some species of Collembola are said to build shelters using their own feces.
From the family Poduridae, some springtails have the ability to emit light. For some, a continuous glow is emitted, and for others, the entire body glows for 5 to 10 seconds.
Collembola antennae are used as tactile, olfactory, and sometimes auditory organs.
Although many species are herbivorous, others are carnivorous feeding on other springtails, nematodes and other small arthropods. Those springtails living in leaf litter and soil usually feed on fungi, plant material, feces and algae.
Springtails use their forked tail to jump away. Some produce toxic chemicals for protection too.
There are a few species of Collembola that feed on live plant material, but most are beneficial to plants. Some feed primarily around the roots of plants and keep harmful bacteria and fungi from building to toxic levels that would kill the plant. These springtails also help to transport good fungi and bacteria to the area around the plant. Springtails contribute nutrients to soil because they speed up the process of decay and deposit nutrient rich feces back into the earth.
Occasionally, springtails cause damage in gardens, greenhouses, and mushroom cellars.
Collembola are important for enrichment of soil.
Collecting: You can find springtails by carefully turning over bark, checking along the edges of ponds, and of course, almost anywhere organic matter is present. Collembola should be preserved in 70% ethyl alcohol. They may also be slide mounted for species level identification.