Hunting for the Threatened Ice Worm in Alaska
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And in other news, many scientists are worried about northern species dependent on arctic ice, which is melting, most famously, polar bears. But also at risk is the lesser-known ice worm. Ice worms live on glaciers and thrive at freezing point and that's something that has NASA interested, because the worms may provide clues to whether life exists on colder planets. Ashley Gross of Alaska Public Radio Network reports.
ASHLEY GROSS reporting:
On a recent rainy morning, Roman Dial tromps out to Byron Glacier south of Anchorage, on the hunt for ice worms.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
GROSS: Dial is a biology professor from Alaska Pacific University. He says there's not much chance of finding any worms because they hide inside the glacier ice during the day. Right after sunset is when they drill their way to the surface.
Professor ROMAN DIAL (Alaska Pacific University): When they all start bubbling up right about twilight, they look like little pinheads coming up through the snow. They're little black dots, then they squeeze up and emerge out of the snow and start crawling around.
GROSS: Today he's in luck. Maybe because the sky is overcast, some inch-long worms are still wriggling across the blue ice.
(Soundbite of chipping noise)
GROSS: He chips away at the ice and puts chunks into an insulated jar he calls his `ice worm cozy.' Then he carefully slides one worm after the other into the jar. Dial says there are lots of unsolved mysteries about the worms.
Prof. DIAL: There's a very little one. That one's about, like, a quarter of an inch or three-eighths of an inch. It's definitely a young one. Nobody really has seen any eggs yet of these guys, or actually seen how they reproduce. And I don't think anybody really knows how long they live.
GROSS: But scientists are beginning to unlock one of the biggest mysteries about ice worms--how they live at such frigid temperatures. Dan Shain, an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University, has discovered something unique about ice worm physiology that enables them to endure the cold better than us humans.
Mr. DAN SHAIN (Rutgers University): If we jump into a cold lake, our energy levels are rapidly depleted, and pretty soon we can't move and we die. If we were to throw them in a very cold pool of water, even well below 0, as they approach their freezing point, their energy levels go the other way. They just keep getting more and more energy the colder they get.
GROSS: That adaptation is why NASA's interested. The agency recently awarded Shain more than $200,000 for worm research. Michael New is an astrobiology scientist with NASA.
Mr. MICHAEL NEW (NASA): If we're interested in looking for life on ice-enshrouded worlds, then understanding how life on Earth has evolved and adapted to living under those conditions is an important thing for NASA to know.
GROSS: New says it's part of NASA's research into extremophiles, organisms that live in extreme conditions, ranging from the boiling hot springs of Yellowstone to hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean.
Mr. NEW: We try to understand the distribution and extent of life on the Earth in order to inform our ability to look for life elsewhere.
(Soundbite of chipping noise)
GROSS: Back at Byron Glacier, Roman Dial has just found a patch of snow where ice worms appear to be thriving.
Prof. DIAL: Lookit, here's a little nest of them, three or four, five, six of them right within an inch of each other.
GROSS: But their future is precarious. This patch of snow is no longer connected to the glacier and is rapidly melting. Dial says Byron Glacier, like much of ice worms' habitat, has shrunk dramatically in just one year. A warming Arctic could be the ice worms' undoing.
Prof. DIAL: Potentially, somewhere, you know, ice worms might be able to adapt to this sort of situation and live in the rocks and maybe, you know, evolve back to something that's not an ice worm. You know, it's possible. But I think, you know, this idea that these are worms that only live on ice means that once the ice is gone, the ice worms will be gone.
GROSS: So this creature, adapted to live in a frozen world, must now adapt to the thaw or, like the polar bear, face possible extinction.
For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross in Anchorage.