Yellowstone National Park Posts Pic of Weird Patches in Snow, and ‘They Aren’t Poppy Seeds’

by Jon D. B.
(Photo by Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Ready for a wild Thanksgiving fact from Yellowstone National Park? Take a look at this bizarre feat of nature that is very much alive.

Fun Fact: If you see a “patch of snow looking like you lost all the poppy seeds off your bagel… You’ve got snow fleas!”

Yes, really. In the park’s photo, shared to their official Facebook page with this description, it truly looks as if someone has brushed all the poppy seeds off their bagel and they’ve peppered fresh white snow. It’s a sight that wouldn’t exactly be alarming in person – until those “seeds” start moving around. Which, as Yellowstone National Park (YELL) continues, means these “aren’t poppy seeds,” but the aforementioned “snow fleas!”

And it becomes even more alarming when you learn that these tiny “fleas,” are not fleas – or insects – at all. In fact, biologists are still trying to figure out exactly what they are.

“Snow fleas, also known as springtails, are a common sight on warm winter days. These tiny animals live in the soil and eat leaf litter and other organic material,” the park explains. “In winter, they often appear on the surface of the snow – sometimes in a dusting like pepper, sometimes in thick clumps.”

Creepy or not, this is an absolutely fascinating fact. After a decade of conservation work myself, I’ve never heard of snow fleas, let alone laid eyes on a photo of them in a cluster like this.

“They might be looking for food (poppy seeds, maybe?), but they haven’t been studied enough to know for sure!” Yellowstone continues. So what in the world, then, is a snow flea/springtail?

Yellowstone National Park Has Snow Fleas, and They are Wild

Researching these tiny animals reveals they are not classified as insects. They are, however, still arthropods, meaning they are invertebrates (animals with an exoskeleton) featuring a segmented body. This enormous branch of the family tree includes everything from lobsters and crabs to butterflies and beetles. And snow fleas, of course.

Unlike actual insect fleas, however, researchers believe the “springtail” is more closely related to crustaceans. In short: there are tiny lobsters crawling all over the snow in Yellowstone. Wild.

There are at least two species, too, with the scientific classifications of Hypogastrura harveyi or Hypogastrura nivicola. However, despite their physiological differences from fleas, there are a few similarities. Snow fleas are also super-powered jumpers (as the Farmer’s Almanac points out) that can leap several inches at a time. This is no small feat for an animal that’s less than a centimeter in size.

Unlike the fleas that infest mammals, though, snow fleas use their “tail,” an appendage called a furcula, to spring themselves forward. This is where the name “springtail” comes from.

And if you needed some good news after all of this, here it is: Snow fleas do not bite, and they work wonders for their ecosystems as they help break down and compost organic matter.

But still, as Julia T.’s perfectly replies to Yellowstone: “So don’t eat the yellow snow or get near the pepper snow. Cool, cool, cool.”

For more on the wildlife of America’s first national park, head on over to our Yellowstone National Park Wildlife: Animals You’ll Spot, Where to Best View Bison, Bears, Elk, Wolves, and Wildlife Safety next.