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Springtails are small organisms that move so quickly that the human eye can’t perceive their motion. They’re very common and easy to find but challenging to observe and even harder to understand. Cameras, at least typical ones, are unable to keep up with the small, speedy hexapods. Dr. Adrian Smith, head of the Evolutionary Biology and Behavior Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University, recorded springtails at 73,000 frames per second to better understand springtail locomotion, which has previously been shrouded in mystery.
Before digging into how Dr. Smith captured the video, it’s worth discussing springtails as their nature. Springtails are hexapods, meaning they have six legs, but they’re not insects. Springtails are wingless arthropods with internal mouthparts. The organism is in the collembola order, one of three in the class ‘entognatha.’ It’s not clear how closely related springtails are to the other two species in the same order, the Dirplura and Protura. Despite DNA sequencing, there remains some debate on the evolutionary history of springtails and how related the species’ history is to other arthropods.
|Image courtesy of Dr. Adrian Smith
To keep things simple, Dr. Smith refers to springtails as ‘bugs.’ That said, there’s not much that’s simple about understanding springtails. Limited research of the organism has turned up little concerning understanding how springtails get around. The organism is so small that it’s hard to see and so incredibly fast that it’s impossible to observe without the aid of very high-speed cameras.
Last year, Dr. Smith attempted to learn more about springtails by recording them at 6,000 frames per second. Even this high speed was too slow to deliver a full picture of the bugs in motion. He upped the frame rate to 10,000 fps, but even this wasn’t quite enough.
|Image courtesy of Dr. Adrian Smith
Using a newer Phantom camera, the VEO1310s, Dr. Smith recorded springtails at 73,000 fps. At this speed, the camera records black and white video that is 240 pixels high, but it’s enough to see the organism in a way nobody else ever has.
Smith says ‘I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say no one has seen a springtail like this before […] I feel like it’s not exactly right to say I’m filming these animals in slow motion. I’m not using the camera to exaggerate or prolong what they’re doing: I’m just trying to see it. I’m trying to meet these animals at the timescale at which they’re behaving, and that turns out to be really, really hard.’ As Dr. Smith says in the video below, ‘Pretty much any recording that captures a springtail jump in detail is capturing something new.’
As you can see in the video, springtails propel themselves forward from the surface of the water and perform ‘astonishingly fast’ backflips. In one example, a springtail rotates at a speed approaching 300 backflips per second.
|This composite image shows a springtail jumping forward at about a 45° angle on the surface of water. Image courtesy of Dr. Adrian Smith.
The semi-aquatic bug can walk on water and propel themselves forward at roughly a 45° angle using a water-resistant appendage tucked underneath their bodies called the furcula. The tail doesn’t break the surface tension, allowing springtails to use the indentation in the water as a sort of springboard. Springtails have hydrophilic appendages, meaning that their claws stick to the water, which provides traction. On dry land, however, their movement is less regular. Nonetheless, even at 10,000 fps, it’s impossible to get the full picture of the bug.
At 73,000 fps, Dr. Smith captured video of a springtail stuck on its back. What was unfortunate for the creature resulted in what Dr. Smith refers to as possibly the luckiest thing he’s caught on camera. The incident sheds new light on the furcula’s role in the springtail’s locomotion, and you can check it out near the end of the video above.
|Springtails may be abundant, but there has been little research done to better understand them. A big reason for the lack of research is likely how difficult the organism is to observe.
We had the chance to speak with Dr. Smith and ask him a bit more about his research and how he captures his amazing videos. He uses a Venus Optics Laowa 60mm f/2.8 Ultra-Macro lens to capture most of his slow-motion video. He also sometimes pairs the lens with extension tubes for even closer shots.
|Dr. Smith has multiple macro lenses, but his go-to lens is the Laowa 60mm f/2.8 Ultra-Macro
He tells us that of all the gear he uses, the most important is lighting. The shots in the video above are shot against an illuminated background, which is an LED shot through diffusion material. For the front lighting, an ultra-powerful LED array specially built for high-speed video is required. In this case, Dr. Smith uses lights from Visual Instrumentation Corporation.
There’s a lot of preparation and post-production work that goes into producing his videos. Smith locks down the camera, lights and set, and records as much as possible. The footage is then composited in post. During post-production, he also spends a lot of time removing noise grain from the high-speed footage. He adds, ‘And of course, bug wrangling. Endless hours of bug wrangling. These springtails are so tiny and fragile that the best thing to use is a small fine paintbrush to move them around onto the filming set.’ The set itself is a clear plastic party cup filled to the brim with water.
To see more incredible high-speed videos from Dr. Smith and his team, visit the Ant Lab YouTube channel. You can also follow Dr. Adrian Smith on Twitter and Instagram