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Sperm on a stick for springtails

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8:23pm, January 19, 2014

AIR TIME  Springtails (Orchesella cincta shown) use a springlike appendage to fling their tiny bodies, just a few millimeters long, into the air.

For springtails, sex can be an Easter egg hunt. Many males of the tiny soil organisms sustain their species by leaving drops of sperm glistening here and there in the landscape in case a female chooses to pick one up.

“The male never meets the female,” says Zaira Valentina Zizzari of VU University Amsterdam, who studies a species of these extreme loners called Orchesella cincta. Just about every degree of mating intimacy, from unseen sperm donors to elaborate courtship and internal insemination, shows up in springtails. That makes the ancient group — which may not belong to the insects but to another set of six-legged arthropods on its own evolutionary trajectory — a treasure trove for biologists studying sex.

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