Quite a bit of mystery surrounds iceworms, but they are very real and thriving in the chilliest habitats. Not only are iceworms found in glaciers, they also inhabit what is called methane ice situated in deepest ocean settings. No one is yet sure how iceworms travel through the ice, nor do they know much about their metabolism or internal structure. Many suppositions and increased interest is leading to funded research.
Iceworms were discovered in the late 1800s crawling inside Alaska’s Muir glacier. The discovery of ocean-going methane iceworms occurred much more recently, in 1997. Glacial worms have been found only in British Columbia, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington. Methane worms have been spotted only in the Gulf of Mexico. To date, iceworms living in these two locales may share the same name, but appear to be unrelated.
Glacial iceworms are quite delicate by nature. In fact, at a temperature range below 20 degrees and above 40 degrees, their bodies go haywire and begin dissolving. A perfect 32 degrees seems to be the ideal point for survival. At freezing, it seems, they can remain flexible due to the nature of cell structure and enzyme action.
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Scientists have discovered populations of millions at some locations. Iceworms can reside several feet beneath snow and ice and much digging is required to find them. They do surface at times, however, generally in the evenings, but always retreating before the sun rises. Indeed, their species identification, “solifugus,” translates to “sun-avoiding.”
As far as locomotion, some believe the iceworms travel through a trail of fissures within the ice. Others support the theory the worms emit a warming fluid to melt a pathway. Even when they make an appearance, iceworms are not easy to spot. They reach a length of just two inches. Their main food supply is a red algae that forms on the ice, plus a range of small organisms including bacteria.
The discovery of methane iceworms has been a boon to oil drillers. It is methane hydrate that builds up from escaping gas, which is an indicator of oil pockets. The gas becomes an ice-packed mound that supports bacterial growth produced from seepage. Experts believe the worms thrive by feeding on these bacteria.
Like their northern counterparts, methane iceworms grow up to two inches long. Both are similar to earthworms with segmented bodies. Hairs, or setae, line the bottoms of their bodies for locomotion. Iceworms have no eyes, but do have two openings on the head and one at the rear. The worms secrete a substance from one of the frontal openings, but as of this writing, research continues on its properties and function.
The interest in these worms lies in their mechanical abilities to live in cold environments. They may someday help in developing a method of keeping skiers warm. Iceworms might even contribute to prolonging the life of organs between removal and transplanting.