Springing a surprise, literally!

I got down from the vehicle after a long drive – tired and hungry. As I set foot on the soil, it felt like a home coming for me. I had just reached Muthodi, what is now known as the Bhadra Tiger Reserve. I stood there for a few moments, transfixed; the hunger, vapourised and the fatigue, non-existent.

My mind raced to the first time I came to Muthodi – well over three decades ago – and the many memorable moments that I had experienced here over several visits over the ensuing years. I had visited the place once briefly in 2007 and even wrote a trip report about it . During this visit I badly missed the towering bamboo as they had flowered and died. Now, with good regeneration, the bamboo was back and was making its presence felt with its signature creaking as it gently swayed in the breeze.

I briskly went down to the stream on whose banks I have spent countless hours. After a brief minute or two there, prompted by the growling tummy, I climbed back up to the dining area.

As I walked up looking at the tall trees and soaking in the forest, one of the forest department staff pointed to the grey patch on the ground and even before I could get a good look at it, he was sitting down next to it and moving his hand above it. The whole grey patch shifted to another spot, a few inches away. He repeated it again with another such grey patch with an identical result! He wanted to know what this was and also mentioned that such patches are seen just after the first rains of the monsoon. I was quite amazed at this phenomenon as I had not seen anything like it before.

I quickly took a couple of videos with my phone, all the while wondering how much technology had changed the ease with which documenting can be done. When I replayed the video, I realised that they were some sort of insects. But I had not a clue.

While the insects shifted when disturbed, they settled promptly on anything in the vicinity. This gave me an opportunity to film them settling on a dead leaf on the forest floor, giving a better idea about the form of these insects.

We stumbled upon another congregation that was disturbed by tiny ants. As the ants moved I watched in amazement. It seemed as if the ants were drawing a pattern amidst these insects. As the ants moved about, the insects that were in the way of the ants jumped to a new location. Together the ants and the insects in question created a wonderful mosaic.

On my return, I sent the video clips to L.Shyamal. He quickly identified them as springtails. I really wished that I had used my camera to get some good macro shots of these curious creatures.

Springtails were considered to be primitive wingless insects. However, in recent times they have been classified separately. A tail-like abdominal appendage typically kept folded under the body is what helps the creature ‘spring’ into the air when it is threatened. This explains their rapid movement as a hand was passed over a congregation.

These organisms came into existence some 400 million years ago. Most are very tiny, elongate and typically measuring not more than half a centimetre. This is true of the 3500 or so species that are known to occur on planet Earth.

Most springtails are found in the soil, rotting leaf litter and such situations where they thrive on fungal hyphae and spores. Some are known to eat plant material and pollen.

A few species are also known to climb trees. Springtails are known to thrive in large numbers in suitable habitats when the conditions are right. If you happen to be out in the wet season, keep an eye open for these little critters that can spring a surprise on you with their abilities; you may capture an interesting event on your camera!

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