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Springtails are no longer considered insects. They are normally about a quarter of an inch long with fewer than seven abdominal segments. Most springtail species have an abdominal tail-like appendage that can be folded under the body. This is known as the furcula and is used to quickly and efficiently launch the springtail into the air.
These small creatures are most commonly seen in piles of dead leaves or other decaying plant material. They act as important detritivores or microbivores. Springtails are responsible for keeping certain microorganisms under control in the soil. Springtails are some of the most prolific of all animals on earth with only nematoads, mites, and crustaceans matching them in terms of population numbers. Their small size makes it difficult to see them at just a casual glance.
Springtails are susceptible to drying out or desiccation because of their method of respiration. The importance of finding a suitable environment to survive is enhanced somewhat by the secretion of pheromones which can help attract springtails to areas where populations are thriving in humid, wet habitats. Obviously, in humid environments, reproduction is enhanced and the survival rate is kept at an optimum level.
Environmental factors play an important role in the distribution of springtails within any given region. Features of the landscape such as the acidity of the soil, the amount of moisture in the soil and air, and light all affect whether a population of springtails will take up residence in an area or not. Some springtail species are also sensitive to altitude changes, which may be in part due to changes in the humidity or the acidity of the soil at different levels. Some springtails cannot live above ground and some situate themselves only near large bodies of water such as lakes or ponds.
These insects are well known agricultural pests. They can cause significant damage to crops and are considered to be a serious pest in Australia. Some species feed on tubers and can cause moderate damage in large enough numbers. However, springtails also carry mycorrhizal fungi sports and mycorrhiza-helper bacteria, which can play a positive role in agricultural areas as well by support plant-fungal symbiotic relationships. They may also be helpful in controlling certain fungal disease in plants due to their feeding habits. Some scientists have even suggested the springtails could be introduced into greenhouses to help prevent the spread of pathogenic forms of fungi.
Some anecdotal tales have suggested that springtails could be human parasites, but experts say that springtails are not biologically equipped to perform parasitically toward humans. Scales and hairs from springtails, can however, cause irritation on human skin, which may be the source of the belief that springtails can be human parasites. People who have discovered the irritation on their skin from contact with springtail may mistakenly believe that the cause is due to parasitism. There is, however, one documented case of an entomologist who inhaled the eggs which subsequently hatched in his nose causing a severe infection until they were flushed out.