Interesting Alaska phenomena: ice worms

When you think about Alaska and its incredible wildlife, chances are you’re picturing something on the larger side; we’ll take a guess and say that a bear or a moose is probably materializing in your mind’s eye. But it’s also worth noting that Alaska is home to creatures of all different sizes, and some of the most interesting can sometimes go unnoticed. What we’re talking out today is the ice worm, one of the smallest and toughest creatures in Alaska’s nature roster.

Ice worms are unique because they spend their entire lives in glacial ice. In order to do this, their bodies must not only be able to withstand extreme cold, but thrive in it. Their cells freeze at much lower temperatures than other organisms, and they are most comfortable at temperatures of 32 degrees Fahrenheit. As the glacier surfaces become colder in the winter, they can journey deeper and deeper into the glacier where it’s insulated and actually warmer. If an ice worm finds itself in an environment warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit it will quite literally melt, as their bodies liquefy from the heat. So if you ever see an ice worm on a glacier hike, spare it by not picking it up and holding it in the palm of your hand.

Ice worms were first discovered in 1887 on Alaska’s Muir Glacier. In fact, they have only been found on glaciers in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

Ice worms can be black, blue or white and feed on snow algae – behaving much like a little sea creatures. They come to the surface of the glaciers at dawn and dusk, hence their Latin name, solifugus, which means “sun-avoiding.” Much is still unknown about this very extreme worm, such as why they’re only found in particular locations and how exactly they tunnel through glacial ice.

In Cordova, a fishing town in Alaska only accessible by boat or airplane, ice worms are celebrated at the annual Cordova Iceworm Festival in February. It’s a full weekend of fun events like a variety show, a parade, a basketball tournament, an ice cream feed and plenty of ice worm-themed arts and crafts. There’s even a 50-foot ice worm replica paraded down the street in the spirit of a Chinese dragon. At the end, one lucky lady is crowned Miss Iceworm.

So next time you’re in the Last Frontier and find yourself on a glacier hike, spend a little time looking down at your feet for tiny worms wriggling through the ice. It’s amazing how easily a creature this extreme could go completely unnoticed!

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