What are springtails (tank janitors), and why your terrarium needs them

Written by Shaunice Lewis
Published: May 24, 2022
Image Credit Ihor Hvozdetskyi/Shutterstock.com
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Springtails a tiny critters that can jump very high and far compared to their body size. These creepy-crawlies are a common addition to terrariums and offer many benefits. Read on to learn more about how you could benefit from adding these little creatures to your terrarium.

What Are Springtails?

Springtails are tiny, crawling animals that have six legs. They look like insects but they’re not. They actually belong to the so-called Entognatha. Their bodies are divided into three sections which includes the head, the thorax, and the abdomen. The biggest difference between springtails and insects is that insects usually have eleven segments on their abdomens, while springtails only have six. Most springtails usually grow between 1mm and 5mm in size, but there are some species that are only 0.1mm small and some that grow to be 17mm.

All together, there are almost 9,000 different species of springtails and they all have different characteristics. Some springtails have their inhabitants on earth, and others have their’s on water, and some even on snow! Some springtails are more long and streamlined, while others are more spherical in shape. As you can see, springtails come in all sorts of varieties.

Where Do Springtails Live?

Different species of springtails will live in different types of habitats. For the ones that live on the ground, they like to be near leaves, dead wood, and even in ant or termite heaps. There are some springtails that live on the seashore or even in glaciers. The one thing that every springtail habitat will have in common is they will all provide the springtail with high levels of humidity. All species of springtails thrive in high humidity and that’s why if you choose to have springtails in your terrarium, you should make sure you have this feature available.

ant pile
Springtails can even live on ant heaps.

Aleksandr Pobedimskiy/Shutterstock.com

Similarly to insects, springtails have an exoskeleton. The only difference is that for a springtail, theirs is water-repellent. This is what allows them to be able to walk on water and to survive floods with ease. If you ever need to transfer tour springtails from your colony to your closed terrarium, you can do so by pouring some water into a container and then pour the springtails out with it without worry. Doing this will not harm the springtail and will allow you to move them into the terrarium with ease.

One of the reasons why springtails can live in such a wide variety of places is because they have been around for more than 400 million years! This has given the springtail plenty of time to adapt to many different types of habitats all over the world.

What Do Springtails Eat?

Springtails are detritus eaters which means that they prefer to eat dead plant material. This is what makes them such an important part of the cleanup crew in your terrarium. Springtails will eat virtually all dead material in your closed terrarium sooner or later. Some species will concentrate on specific foods. For example, some springtails will eat mushrooms, while other prefer to eat algae. Some of them are also carnivores and others will eat pollen from flowers. They have such a wide and varied diet that springtails will eat just about anything, especially if there is nothing else to eat.

They can even go as far as to eat heavy metals and are thus the first type of creature to reestablish themselves in disturbed ecosystems. Hopefully you won’t have any heavy metals in your terrarium for your springtail to eat, but it just goes to show you just how resilient these little creatures are.

heavy metal
Springtails can live off a wide variety of material, both living and dead. They can even consume metal!

Aleksandr Pobedimskiy/Shutterstock.com

Through the excretions that they make, springtails give the substrate a natural fertilizer which they distribute well by themselves, making it a bioactive substrate. Springtails will only become harmful to a terrarium if there are not enough dead plants for them to eat. When there is a lack of dead plant material, springtails may begin to attack the roots of living plants, as they search for something they can eat. This is why it is important that you make sure there is always enough detritus left for them. If there isn’t, you could easily place a dead leaf in the terrarium which should be enough for the tiny creatures to munch on for a while.

Are Springtails Dangerous to Humans?

No. Springtails are completely harmless to humans. They can bite but you wouldn’t be able to even notice that you were bit by one as springtails can only get as large as 17mm in size. A springtail’s jaw is so small that their bites would be the equivalent of getting bit by a mosquito. The good news is, springtails have no intention of biting you as they are not aggressive creatures. A springtail would rather jump away from you out of fear. It’s also important to note that they are not poisonous. So you don’t have to worry about them leaving any itch or burning spots on you from handling them.

How Far Can Springtails Jump?

Springtails get their name from their ability to jump very high. A springtail can jump up to 100 times the size of their body length! Between the smallest and the largest size springtail that equals out to be a distance of 1cm to 1.7m. This is incredibly far for such a tiny creature. To compare this to humans for better perspective, this would be like an average height person jumping the distance of two soccer fields!

springtail in pre-jump posture
Springtails get their name in reference to their extraordinary jumping ability – up to 100 times their body length!

thatmacroguy/Shutterstock.com

In order for springtails to be able to jump this far they have a spring-like leg under their rear end. With this leg they can accelerate almost immediately to a speed of about 5km/h. Although this may sound like a very small amount, it is actually very fast for such a small animal. This speed is typically only used as an escape mechanism and is not in control of the direction it is flung in. In a way, it’s almost like an ejection seat functionality that is built in for emergencies. This amount of speed is usually sufficient for the springtail to be able to evade threats effectively.

How to Breed Springtails

If you want to breed your own springtails for your terrarium, the first thing you’ll need to do is have a good container for them. If you have purchased your first springtail colony online, you won’t have to worry about the breeding process. You can purchase a complete package and just leave it as it already is.

To breed your own springtails make sure that you have a sealed container to start with. It is very important that the container is able to be sealed and shut tightly. Even though springtails aren’t dangerous, you wouldn’t want them to escape from the container and be everywhere in your home. Ideally, you would want the container to be as flat as possible. Most Tupperware would be good for this purpose.

The next thing you will need is a resilient filling. Springtails are comfortable in most environments, but you want to choose a filling that will last for as long as possible and will not mold or contain any plant materials from which something foreign could grow. You could use something like charcoal for this purpose. Normal charcoal or active charcoal will work just fine, but if you want to use your own charcoal after a barbecue or cook out, you’ll want to make sure that it hasn’t been in contact with methylated spirits or any other harsh chemicals.

Rinse off your charcoal thoroughly with warm water in order to remove any contaminants from the surface and then place it in your Tupperware container until it’s full to the top. There should still be plenty of room for your springtails to crawl around in. Finally, fill the container with about 3-6cm of water so that there is a nice reservoir at the bottom.

Now, if you want to fill the new container with springtails from an existing colony, you can add a little more water to your old container and then slowly pour it into the new container. This will pull most of the springtails along with it, transferring them safely to the new container.

Finally, be sure to add in something for the springtail to eat. Luckily, food for springtails is very easy to find since they eat such a wide and varied diet. You probably already have food on hand that is perfectly safe for your springtails to consume. You can use yeast flakes which is often sold directly as springtail food, or you could even use something as simple as uncooked rice.

Pour a little bit of the food into your container so that the surface is still easily visible and then close your colony. The springtails will then make themselves comfortable and eat until they are full. You won’t have to worry about mold growing on the rice grains because the springtails will eat that too!

Every now and then, make sure that you open your colony in order to let in some oxygen. The rest of the time, you can store your colony in a cool, dark place—never place your colony in direct sunlight.

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About the Author

Freelance writer specializing in natural health and wellness.

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