BACKGROUND: In Drosophila and many other insects, the Hox genes Ultrabithorax (Ubx) and abdominal-A (abd-A) suppress limb formation on most or all segments of the abdomen. However, a number of basal hexapod lineages retain multiple appendages on the abdomen. In the collembolans or springtails, three abdominal segments develop specialized organs that originate from paired appendage primordia which fuse at the midline: the first abdominal segment bears the collophore (ventral tube), involved in osmoregulation; the fourth segment bears the furca, the leaping organ, and the third segment bears the retinaculum, which retains the furca at rest. Ubx and abd-A are known to be expressed in the springtail abdomen, but what role they play in specifying these distinct abdominal appendages is not known. This is largely because no genetic model has been established in collembolans or any other non-insect hexapod. RESULTS: We have developed a convenient method for laboratory culture of the collembolan Orchesella cincta on defined media, a method for in-situ hybridization to embryos and a procedure for gene knockdown by parental injection of double-stranded RNA (RNAi). We show that Orchesella Ubx transcripts are detectable in the first to third abdominal segments, and abd-A transcripts in the second to fourth segments. Knockdown of Oc-Ubx leads to the homeotic transformation of the collophore into a pair of walking legs (a more anterior identity) but the retinaculum into a furca (a more posterior identity). Knockdown of Oc-abd-A leads to the transformation of the retinaculum into a collophore and of the furca into legs (both anterior transformations). Simultaneous silencing of both Oc-Ubx and Oc-abd-A transformed all three of these appendages into paired legs, but did not cause appendages to develop on the second, or on the most posterior abdominal segments. CONCLUSIONS: We conclude that, in Orchesella, Oc-Ubx alone specifies the collophore on the first and Oc-abd-A alone specifies the furca on the fourth abdominal segment. Oc-Ubx and Oc-abd-A function together, apparently combinatorially, to specify the retinaculum on the third segment. The efficiency of RNAi in Orchesella makes this an attractive model for further genetic studies of development and physiology in basal hexapods.