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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

March Madness

Air Date: Week of

Before everything bursts into full Spring bloom, even mud and snow are teeming with life, according to commentator Sy Montgomery.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Here in the northern regions while we wait for the buds and flowers to pop, we're missing some of nature's wildest shows, says Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery.

MONTGOMERY: This is a bleak time here in New Hampshire. The snow is gray and brown from winter's blanket of chimney ash and sand. Then when the snow melts that's even worse. Nothing but mud everywhere. The whole landscape looks, if not dead, then at least exhausted. But that's why I love this time of year. It reminds me of one of the most powerful lessons nature has to teach us. Look again.

On one of those days when it seems there's nothing to do but watch the dirty snow melt, go out and watch the dirty snow melt. You may well find that what looks like specks of ashes on the snow are jumping around. You've encountered one of the world's weirdest animals, engaged in a dramatic spectacle so bizarre that no one is really sure what's going on.

They're called snow fleas. Actually, they're not fleas at all but animals called spring tails. They're called spring tails because they've got a mechanism at the rear of the abdomen that lets them catapult into space. These guys are only one sixteenth of an inch long, but each can jump six inches in a single bound: the equivalent of a person covering a mile in ten leaps.

Normally, they live beneath the leaf litter where you'd never see them. Why do they appear now? One theory is this: a population explosion so severe that the only solution is cannibalism. A British entomologist watching a swarm of snow fleas under magnification found the animals savagely fighting one another with mouth parts and tarsal claws. The victors ate the victims and then died themselves. The blood of spring tails is toxic. True, not every day offers such a spectacle as snow fleas fighting on melting snow.

Fortunately, once the snow is gone, there's mud to look forward to. Mud is full of life. A few years back, a biologist removed 6 inches of the stuff from a dried up pasture pool, added water, and found no fewer than 5 different kinds of tiny animals hatched out. Nice wet estuary mud is even richer. On average, each cubic inch contains 1.4 million microscopic worms and more than a quarter mile of cobweb-thin filaments called hyfulthreads, which belong to a fungus.

My friend Rick Van Depoll calls mud a mini Gaia system, because the animals who live in mud recreate and regulate their own environment. There's a lot going on here. For mud, like melting snow, is full of life and speaks to us eloquently, inviting us to look again. Reminding us, even now, to trust the richness, abundance, and generosity of nature.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery's most recent book is The Spell of the Tiger. She comes to us courtesy of New Hampshire Public Radio.



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