Dec
27
2005

Imagine that you are on a glacier and all around you thousands of black worms rise up out of the ice. It sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie, but it isn't. The worms are ice worms, and they're real.

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.

The ideal temperature for an ice worm is zero degrees Celsius, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This ability of ice worms to thrive in such extreme temperatures is the focus of a three year $214,206 NASA grant. Researchers hope ice worms can help unlock the secrets of how life might survive on distant ice worlds such as Europa.

Ice worms actually disintegrate through the process of autolysis when they are exposed to temperatures greater than 5 degrees Celsius. (Autolysis in cell biology refers to the destruction of a cell by its own digestive enzymes.) With the glaciers that are the only habitat for these organisms slowly melting due to global warming, ice worms are losing their habitat. If you consider that there are over 7 billion worms in one glacier, their impact on ecologies that are influenced by the glaciers must be significant, both in terms of biomass and in terms of nutrient processing. There is a lot more to learn about these organisms, and the role they play in the ecosystem.

For a time ice worms were believed to be mythical creatures — there is even an amusing poem that features the ice worm. I never knew these things existed — pretty amazing worm, I think.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I heard about Ice Worms on the radio last week. There was a movie at the Science Museum a couple of years ago about cavers who used other extremeophiles in medical research. I am constantly amazed, that for all we do know about the physical world, there is even more that we don't know.

posted on Wed, 12/28/2005 - 9:42am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Hmmmm, ice worms huh thats weird. i really never knew that worms or anything for that fact could survive on something like a huge block of ice. Yesterday it rained at my house and i saw some worms. My sister and i used to rescue worms when it rained...funny huh

posted on Sun, 04/30/2006 - 11:47am
shannen's picture
shannen says:

What do the ice worms eat and how do they stay warm to survive?

posted on Wed, 12/28/2005 - 1:22pm
Joe's picture
Joe says:

Well, they primarily eat snow algae, which is similar to the algae you'd find in a lake around here, except that it is cold-tolerant and grows on snow and ice - it's sometimes called watermelon snow due to its red color. Ice worms don't want to be warm - they die at temperatures around 40 - 50 degrees Fahrenheit. They are best suited to temperatures of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why they are considered extremophiles.

posted on Wed, 12/28/2005 - 1:42pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I have heard about ice worms before though i have not very familair with how they live and information like that. I wouldnt miind learning alittle bit more about them when i have the chance. This article ,in my opinion, had helped me to underrstand them aliilte bit more and I hope to learn more soon! :)

posted on Wed, 12/28/2005 - 5:22pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

When did they appear?
North Cascade Glacier Climate Project gives a intact introduction to ice worms, but they didn't mention ice worms history. How long did they survive on the Earth?

posted on Sun, 03/05/2006 - 5:44am
Jonathan's picture
Jonathan says:

What temperture can worms come out at?

posted on Wed, 01/24/2007 - 1:30pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

yeah well ice worms seem pretty weird i have to agree but what eats ice worms? I have to do a report on them! can any one help?

posted on Thu, 05/03/2007 - 4:29pm
christii<3's picture
christii<3 says:

lol. me too. go on http://www.alaskacenters.gov/ iceworms
good luck!

posted on Mon, 12/19/2011 - 8:46pm
Alton's picture
Alton says:

Ice worms are the Resonance of life of the future they will probably out live us on this planet.

posted on Wed, 10/31/2007 - 1:55pm
rangerlina's picture
rangerlina says:

Ice worms live on warmer glaciers and were first discovered in southeast Alaska in what is now Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve on Muir Glacier in 1887 or some time therabout. There may be information available from Glacier Bay, where I once worked as a ranger. They may have been on earth as long as we have had glacial ice with the right tempetures - not too cold, not too warm.

posted on Sun, 03/22/2009 - 6:39pm
rangerlina's picture
rangerlina says:

No, ice worm will become extinct as soon as the glaciers in warmer glacial climate melt. They can ONLY live on that particular temperature of ice! Birds may eat ice worms, but they dont have any major enemies. they go into the ice when teh sun is out, and come out once the sun's rays no longer threaten them,

posted on Sun, 03/22/2009 - 6:42pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

crazy

posted on Wed, 04/01/2009 - 12:39pm
jordie's picture
jordie says:

i'm doing a project on glaciers for scholl, this really helped me out!!!

posted on Mon, 11/29/2010 - 8:04pm
jordie's picture
jordie says:

COOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :D

posted on Mon, 11/29/2010 - 8:05pm

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