Campus Life

Underground Inquiry

Ice Worms and Jules Verne

A fascinating creature lives in the glaciers and snowfields of the North American continent. Measuring less than an inch and long thought to be mythical creatures, ice worms not only survive in this harsh environment, but they have evolved to thrive in it. In fact, if an ice worm is warmed to even just 5 degrees Celsius (or about 40 degrees Fahrenheit), the proteins making up their membrane structures disassociate and they “melt.” As a result, while most of life on Earth seeks out the sun for sustenance, the sun is the ice worm’s mortal enemy. Ice worms have thus been scientifically dubbed “solifugus,” which is Latin for “sun-avoiding.”

During the warmer months of the year, ice worms swarm to the surface of glaciers at sunset to feed. In 2002, the mean recorded density of ice worms on the Suiattle Glacier in Washington state was approximately 2600 worms per square meter — meaning about 7 billion ice worms inhabit the 2.7 square kilometer glacier! And what exactly do all these creatures find to eat in this barren landscape? Snow algae.

To counter the nocturnal visual phenomena of a glacier practically pulsating with the bodies of billions of worms, summer days on these glaciers are the stage for yet another beautiful sight. For thousands of years, mountain climbers, naturalists, and explorers have been puzzled and fascinated by huge swaths of pink and red in the snow, sometimes called “red snow” or “watermelon snow.” Turns out, this colorful phenomena is due to another cold-loving organism that absolutely thrives in freezing conditions: a unicellular algal member of the division Chlorophyta, surnamed nivalis, which roughly translated means “of cold.”

In addition to chlorophyll, this snow algae contains a bright red carotenoid pigment similar to the pigment cells found in tomatoes, autumn leaves, and red peppers. They leach minerals and nutrients from boulders, the underlying soil, and decaying debris such as pollen that’s been blown up the glacier from below the tree line. Growing in highly concentrated “blooms” that can be up to 25 cm deep, they are the base of an incredible food network dominated by the ice worms.

And what does this have to do with Jules Verne? Considered by many to be the “Father of Science Fiction,” Jules Verne has been noted for making numerous predictions about the future of science and technology with startling accuracy. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea predicts submarines, From the Earth to the Moon predicts the Apollo program (even launching astronauts from “Tampa Town” on the Florida peninsula and returning them to Earth via a splash landing in the ocean), and Paris in the 20th Century predicts air-conditioning, the Internet, high-speed travel, and electric chairs.

In 1866, Verne wrote The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, a two-part novel: The English at the North Pole and The Desert of Ice. Not only does Verne write about traveling to the North Pole decades before such an expedition was possible, in The Desert of Ice he writes of a red snow effect caused by microscopic fungi. At that time, red snow was still attributed to meteoric iron deposits, and it wasn’t until the turn of the century that high concentrations of microscopic algae were finally given credit for the phenomenon.

These days, ice worms hold a fascination beyond their sheer oddity and curious connection to a boldly speculative writer. Study of the worm’s metabolic enzymes, which are catalyzed instead of frozen (pun intended) by sub-zero temperatures, might improve storage and transportation methods of harvested organs; also, NASA is curious to see whether these cold-loving creatures can tell us anything about the possibility of life on the frozen planets and moons of our solar system. And academic interest in ice worms and their fellow glacier-dwellers is increasing in the face of glacier shrinkage due to global warming. What other ridiculous curiosities might be gleaned from a habitat that could disappear in the next hundred years?

This episode brought to you by imagination.