Snow Fleas: Another Pesky Pest or the Key to a Scientific Breakthrough?

scientist in the lab
Scientist working in a lab, image: Julia Koblitz

Several Michiganders have spotted what appeared to be dirt sitting on top of the snow this winter. Upon closer inspection, it was discovered that the specks were not dirt at all. The specks were found to be alive and jumping; they were snow fleas. Before reaching for the phone to call exterminators, we must first understand the snow flea. The snow flea has many striking differences from the average flea we all know and despise.

Scientifically speaking, snow fleas are arthropods, most closely related to crustaceans. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, snow fleas are 2-3mm long and blueish-black. Yes, you read that right; snow “fleas” are closest related to creatures like crabs and lobsters. The most notable difference is that, unlike normal fleas, snow fleas do not feast on the blood of humans and our pets. Instead, they feed on decaying plant material and soil bacteria, making them harmless to our furry loved ones and us. 

two snow fleas
Close-up image of Snow Fleas, image: Farmers Almanac

These harmless creatures are around all year but are seen easier in the snow. They also are the key to a potential scientific breakthrough. The 2007 paper “Structural Modeling of Snow Flea Antifreeze Protein” notes that “glycine-rich antifreeze protein recently discovered in snow fleas exhibits strong freezing point depression activity without significantly changing the melting point of its solution.”

Scientists have already made edible antifreeze with similar proteins found in snow fleas, used in ice cream and other frozen foods. These proteins may aid in extending the storage life of donor organs and tissue for human transplantations. Notably, the science news outlet reported that researchers in Illinois and Pennsylvania have successfully replicated the antifreeze protein found in snow fleas. 

What appears to be another pesky bug to rid of can contribute significantly to science and save lives.

antifreeze protein
The antifreeze protein and its mirror image, image:

Snow Fleas: Another Pesky Pest or the Key to a Scientific Breakthrough?