Springtails - Animals for a closed terrarium

Springtails are small creepy-crawlies that live up to their name and can jump very high and far compared to their body size. But what actually is a springtail, biologically speaking? Today we'll take a close look at what springtails are, where their natural habitat is, what food they like best, and how you can breed them yourself for your closed terrarium.

If you want to check out some other animals for your closed terrarium, read the article on 5 types of insects and other animals for a closed terrarium.

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Buy springtails and breed them

If you already know a lot about springtails and just want to have some, you've come to the right place. On Amazon you can buy springtails. Similar to a pet store, this gives you a small plastic container. This is filled with soil that is just teeming with springtails. You can either put them all directly into your eternal terrarium, or use the container for breeding. Read more about this below.

What are springtails?

Springtails (Collembola) are small crawling animals with exactly six legs. This makes them very similar to insects, but they are not insects themselves. Instead, they belong to the so-called Entognatha.

Springtail Isotoma anglicana
The species Isotoma anglicana is about 3.5mm long. Source: U. Burkhardt on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Their body is basically divided into three segments. These are the head, the thorax and the abdomen. The big difference to insects is that insects have an abdomen that usually consists of eleven segments. In springtails, however, there are only six segments. It is true that most species of springtails grow between 1mm and 5mm in size. But there are also species that are only 0.1mm small and some that grow to 17mm.

In total, there are almost 9000 different species of springtails, which have very different characteristics. Among them are springtails that have their habitat on earth, others on water and even some on snow. Some of them are long and streamlined, while others are more spherical.

Where do springtails live?

Different species of springtails have different habitats. As already mentioned, there are some that crawl through the earth. They like it in leaves, on dead wood and also in ant and termite heaps. Others of them regularly walk on water, live on the seashore or even in glaciers.

Springtails Anurida maritima
Anurida maritima live near the coast and are blue. Source: Stemonitis on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5

Each named springtail habitat has something in common with the others. They all provide the springtails with high humidity. All species like this very much, which is why you should also create this in your closed terrarium.

The range of water in your closed terrarium is very limited. You can learn how to get exactly the right amount of water in this article. This will also definitely give you the right humidity for springtails.

Springtails have a special body. Similar to insects, they have an exoskeleton. Howeverm, theirs is water-repellent. This allows them to walk on water and survive floods with ease. If you want to transfer springtails from your colony to your closed terrarium, you can pour some water into your container and pour the springtails out without worry. You will not harm them in the process.

Springtail Isotomurus palustris
Isotomurus palustris live in cities and urban areas. Source: Lucarelli on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The fact that springtails occur in so many different places can be explained by the fact that they have been around for more than 400 million years! They have thus had enough time to adapt to all kinds of habitats.

What food do they like?

This has already been mentioned in the article on insects. Springtails are so-called detritus eaters. This means that they prefer to eat dead plant material. This makes them an important part of the cleanup crew in your closed terrarium. They thus fill a gap in the nutrient cycle.

In principle, they eat virtually all dead material in your closed terrarium sooner or later. Some species are concentrated on certain food. There are some that prefer to eat mushrooms. Others prefer algae. Some of them are carnivores and still others like pollen from flowers best. Actually, however, all species eat everything if there's nothing else to eat.

They can even eat heavy metals and are thus often the first creatures to reestablish themselves in disturbed ecosystems. Although you will (hopefully) not have any heavy metals in your closed terrarium, it shows well how resilient these little animals are.

The springtail species Dicyrtomina ornata likes to roam on leaves during the day. Source: Kjetil Fjellheim on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Through their excretions, they give the substrate a natural fertilizer, which they distribute well all by themselves, making it a bioactive substrate. Springtails only become harmful when there are not enough dead plants left. Then they start attacking the roots of the living plants. So you should always keep an eye on whether there is enough detritus left. If not, you can just put a dead leaf in your closed terrarium yourself. This should last long enough for the little guys.

Are springtails dangerous to humans?

No, springtails are absolutely harmless to humans. They can bite, but you will hardly notice bites from springtails. The largest springtail species are only 17mm in size. Their jaws are so small that their bites hardly feel more painful than mosquito bites. Anyway, springtails have no intention of biting you. Rather, they jump away out of fear.

Springtails are also not poisonous. So you don't have to worry about them leaving itchy or burning spots if you have several of them on your skin.

How far do springtails jump?

Their name is really fitting here. They didn't get it for nothing. They can jump up to 100 times farther than their body length. So between the smallest and the largest, that equates to distances of 1cm to 1.7m! That is so incredibly far that we should briefly compare this to humans to fathom it completely.

If the average person with a height of 1.7m could jump as far as springtails, they could jump a whole 170m. So they could jump almost two soccer fields.

To jump this far, springtails have a spring-like leg under their rear end. With this, they can accelerate almost immediately to a speed of about 5km/h. This may sound very little at first, but it is super fast for such a small animal. This may sound very little at first, but it is super fast for such a small animal.

This is used only as an escape mechanism. A springtail can therefore not control in which direction it is flung. In principle, you can really think of it as a kind of ejection seat for emergencies. 5km/h are absolutely sufficient for most threats.

Springtails Protaphorura armata
Protaphorura armata are springtails that live underground and cannot jump. Source: U. Burkhardt on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

How to breed springtails

If you want to breed springtails, you first need a good container for them. If you bought your first springtail colony online, you don't have to worry about the whole breeding process. You get a complete package and you can just leave it as it is.

A sealed container

If you want to split your colony, you will need a similar container. It is especially important that it is completely tight. Although the small animals are not dangerous, you don't want to have them everywhere in your home. Ideally, this container should also be as flat as possible. Most Tupperware can be used for this purpose.

A resilient filling

Springtails are very comfortable in many habitats. For the filling of your Tupperware, you should choose something that will last as long as possible and will not mold or contain plant materials from which something could grow.

Various forms of charcoal are available for this purpose. You can use normal charcoal or active charcoal. If you want to use your own charcoal, made after a campfire or barbecue, be sure it has not been in contact with methylated spirits or other chemicals.

Rinse the charcoal thoroughly with warm water to remove any contaminants from the surface. Then place it in your tupperware until it is full to the top. There should be plenty of spaces for your springtails to crawl around in. Finally, fill your container about 3-6cm with water so there is a good reservoir at the bottom.

How to fill in the springtails

Now, if you want to add springtails from your existing colony to your new container, add a little more water to your old container. Then slowly pour it into the new container. This will pull a lot of springtails along with it. Voila!

And something to eat

Food for springtails is very easy to get. You probably already have some at home. You can either use ordinary yeast flakes, which is also often sold directly as springtail food. Or you can use regular, uncooked rice.

Rice Springtail Food
Springtails like rice a lot. Source: Vie Studio on pexels.com

Pour a little of it into your container so that the surface is still easily visible and close your colony. Your springtails make themselves comfortable and eat until they're full. You don't have to worry about mold on the rice grains. Your springtails like to eat that too!

Every now and then you should open your colony to let some oxygen in. The rest of the time you can store the colony in dark places with room temperature or a little cooler. Never put them in full sun.

Summary

Springtails are small arthropods, but not insects. They are characterized by their six segments at the rear and their jumping organ underneath. When threatened, they can use this to accelerate to 5km/h in a very short time and jump up to 100 times the distance of their body length. They feed on detritus and make your substrate bioactive. They are completely harmless to humans and also very easy to grow at home. Springtails make terrariums much more stable and can survive for a long time, because they always receive new, natural fertilizer through the excretions of the springtails.

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