Steve
Home            Ice Worms USA

Ice Worms of America and Canada

A type of Ice Worm with the scientific name of Mesenchytraeus solifugus lives on the glaciers of the Pacific slopes of the North American continent, ranging from the Collier Glacier in Central Oregon to the Portage Glacier of Alaska. There are a number of other creatures in the world which are referred to as Ice Worms, but this article is only about Mesenchytraeus solifugus.

These worms are annelids, related to Earth Worms and Tubifex Worms.

Sun Avoiding

Solifugus means sun avoiding.  These worms mostly come out at night.  They are black or brown in colour, but although this pigment gives some protection against damaging Ultra Violet light, they still tend to move down in the ice for the daylight hours.

Moving Through the Ice

Although it is not certain how they do it, Ice Worms can move quite readily through the glacial ice.

Habitat

These worms are almost completely confined to glaciers.  They do not go very far away from the glacier edge onto other snow. 

They can often be seen in small pools of Melt water, waving in the water. Although I have heard it suggested that they are waving their heads around in search of food, I would suggest that this behaviour is very similar to that of Tubifex Worms and these Ice Worms may well be waving their tails around in the well Oxygenated water of the little pools and getting food with their heads in the ice.

Temperature

The Temperature range of the Ice Worms is surprisingly narrow.  They seem to be most active at about freezing point.  They die at about 5 to 7 degrees C (About 41 degrees F).  Unlike some other animals living in The Arctic or Antarctic regions, Ice Worms do not have antifreeze in the usual way although they seem to have some mechanism to manage the ice crystals in their tissues.  Despite this adaption, they only seem to be able to survive down to about minus 7 degrees C (about 19 degrees F).

Wintering

It is not really known how these worms survive the winter, but it appears that they move deep enough into the glacier to have enough insulation so the temperature is warm enough for them.  However, there is an enormous amount that we do not know about these worms.

Food

The main food of ice worms is snow algae although they eat any small organic matter including pollen.

On the glaciers there do not seem to be many things that eat Ice Worms, but these worms are released by the melting end of the glaciers in hundreds of millions.  It is a reasonable guess that there are fish and other predators adapted to make use of this food source before the water temperature reaches about 10 Degrees C (50 Degrees F) when these worms will actually disintegrate.

Ice Worms on Mars

The Ice Worm is one of the organisms suggested as being capable of living on Mars. Personally, I doubt it.  The Ice Worm, Mesenchytraeus solifugus, is not sufficiently cold resistant for the Red planet. Of course, other worms with some differences might be able to live in places like Mars, and the icy moons of Jupiter.

Threatened Species

There are a lot more of this species of ice worm on our planet that there are Humans. But their habitat is disappearing rapidly. If all the glaciers they live on melt; these worms could become extinct.

Although, of course, global warming also could make Humans extinct, we can adapt to a much wider range of habitats than Ice Worms,and our survival is much more likely.


Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park Montana (US) in 1981