In the snowy Washington backcountry, snow flies adapt and live : Short Wave The winter is usually when insects die or go into a state of paused development, but for tiny specks on the white snow called snow flies, it's time to run around, find a lover and make baby snow flies. Neuroscientist John Tuthill has been studying these creatures since he first came across them in 2016. He's found that not only can they survive in the cold, but if one of their limbs starts to freeze, they can self-amputate and pop it right off. That buys the snow fly time to find a mate and make sweet, sweet snow fly love.

Interested in other winter biology? Email us at shortwave@npr.org — we'd love to hear from you!

Snow flies' funky adaptations to survive (and get frisky) in the cold

Snow flies' funky adaptations to survive (and get frisky) in the cold

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A snow fly is seen surviving in the Cascades mountains in Washington state. The insect is capable of surviving below the freezing point of water, continuing to move until it finally freezes itself. John Tuthill hide caption

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John Tuthill

A snow fly is seen surviving in the Cascades mountains in Washington state. The insect is capable of surviving below the freezing point of water, continuing to move until it finally freezes itself.

John Tuthill

The winter is usually when insects die or go into a state of paused development, but for tiny specks on the white snow called snow flies, it's time to run around, find a lover and make baby snow flies.

John Tuthill, a professor at the University of Washington, first came across these creatures on a hike in the Cascade Mountains in late 2016. He normally studies fruit flies – which John says are "screwed" in the cold – which is why he was shocked to see that their distant cousins were able to live in such hostile conditions.

Tuthill and his colleagues slowly decreased the temperature of a cold plate to simulate the wintery conditions snow flies encounter outdoors. They found that the snow flies continued to move around until frozen, unlike other insects that entered a paralyzed, chill coma state before they were frozen.

Tuthill and his colleagues have been collecting snow flies and studying them in the lab to figure out what makes them so special. Not only can they survive in the cold, but if one of their limbs starts to freeze, they can self-amputate and pop it right off. That buys the snow fly time to find a mate and make sweet, sweet snow fly love.

"There's still a small chance that they'll meet the love of their life and end up being able to procreate," Tuthill says.

When he talks about them, he sounds almost poetic.

"For me, snow flies are just kind of a paragon of, like, fortitude and bravery," he says. "They have figured out how to live in an environment where there's almost no other insect. And the advantage of that is that they have a place where they can make free love on the snow with each other without interruption from predators in incredibly beautiful conditions."

Tuthill's lab is harnessing citizen science to continue their snow fly research. If you're in the mountains and happen to see these spindly insects, you can collect them and send them to him. Find more information here.

Interested in other winter biology? Email us at shortwave@npr.org — we'd love to hear from you!

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This episode was produced by Rachel Carlson, edited by our showrunner Rebecca Ramirez and fact-checked by Berly McCoy. Josh Newell was the audio engineer.