Ice worms are animals you might not have thought could exist. In fact, they were believed to be mythical creatures for a time, but alas, they are real. Pretty amazing, and with apologies to those who love them, I wish they were not there. I like to think of glacier ice as clean and pure, but the truth is, it is filled with all kinds of things, including billions of these little black worms that travel around in it. Oh well, it is as it must be.
What Are Ice Worms?
Ice worms are enchytraeid annelids of the genus Mesenchytraeus. The … most well-known members … are found in glacial ice. They include the only annelid worms known to spend their entire lives in glacial ice, and some of the few metazoans to complete their entire life cycle at conditions below 0 °C (32 °F).
The ice worm resembles the common earthworm but is smaller and darker in color. What sets the ice worm apart from other members of the Mesenchytraeus genus is its ability to live its entire life in glacial ice.
Millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of ice worms can be seen wriggling to the top of glaciers from the Chugach Mountains in southeast Alaska to the Cascade Volcanoes of Washington and Oregon during the summer months. In the fall and winter, ice worms subsist deep beneath the surface of glaciers where temperatures stay around freezing.
… they move down into the glacier and eat the nutrients that have been trapped by forming layers in the ice over several years.
More Alaska Centers
Ice worms are extremophiles, animals that thrive in conditions that most creatures would not be able to survive, such as volcanos, glaciers and deep in the ocean. Ice worms live in glacial ice. They average around 1 cm long and 1 mm wide, and eat snow algae. Ice worms are the opposite of worms like earthworms, in that instead of becoming less active as temperature decreases, ice worms become more active with cooler temperatures. And there are a lot of them. One glacier can have an ice worm density of 2600 worms per square meter.
Contrary to stories and songs, they do not give glacier ice its blue color and they don’t grow to lengths of 50 feet. (These myths were made popular by poet Robert Service and the annual Cordova Iceworm Festival in Alaska).
Unlike the other life forms mentioned, ice worms are actually visible to the naked eye, appearing as little black, blue, or white wriggly worms that are approximately a few centimeters long – about the size of a small baby earthworm.
These worms are much more hardcore than the humble earthworm, living in ice and surviving freezing temperatures. However, if exposed to temperatures above 40°F (about 4.4°C) they’ll actually melt and liquefy.
Methane Ice Monsters
A different worm is even found in methane ice. This one is quite a monster under magnification:
A team of university scientists using a mini research submarine on a NOAA-funded research cruise has discovered, photographed, and sampled what appears to be a new species of centipede-like worms living on and within mounds of methane ice on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, about 150 miles south of New Orleans.
Although scientists had hypothesized that bacteria might colonize methane ice mounds, called gas hydrates, this is the first time animals have been found living in the mounds.
During last week’s dives, oceanographer Ian MacDonald of Texas A&M University and his colleagues brought some solid chunks of hydrate to the surface in a pressure chamber. MacDonald found worms right through the ice. “The
burrow system appears to be quite extensive,” he says. …
Okay, so ice worms are real. You know what? I don’t mind those little black ice worms now. They are not bad at all, relatively speaking.