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Conqueror Worm
November 16, 2011 2:48 PM   Subscribe

In 1887, a glacial geologist named George Frederick Wright was hiking across the Muir Glacier in southeast Alaska when something strange caught his eye. Just as the daylight began to fade, the previously uninterrupted expanse of white snow around him began to develop what appeared to be a five o’clock shadow....
posted by Chrysostom (28 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Note to self....do not eat dinner while reading Metafilter.

Otherwise, really interesting.
posted by nevercalm at 3:05 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Slashdotted, alas.
posted by zomg at 3:09 PM on November 16, 2011


"Friscalating dusklight"....a call out to Royal Tenenbaums AND an article about worms? Yeah!
posted by glaucon at 3:11 PM on November 16, 2011


YAY DIVERSITY OF LIFE!

man, that's just weird.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:21 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ice worms
posted by stonepharisee at 3:32 PM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ah it works now I withdraw my previous comment
posted by zomg at 4:01 PM on November 16, 2011


Wonder how they'd do on Europa
posted by Renoroc at 4:10 PM on November 16, 2011


This isn't going to turn out to be like the hotheaded naked ice borer, is it?
posted by smcameron at 4:39 PM on November 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


"a pinkish algae which creates swaths of snow that have the hue and aroma of fresh watermelon."

For a moment I thought I was reading an excerpt from the "Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy" books. I was somewhat disappointed when I found that the next sentence wasn't about a ridiculously strong cocktail made from the melted snow produced by these algae.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 5:12 PM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


From Wikipedia, the bit that interested me -
Mesenchytraeus solifugus have a very narrow acceptable temperature range. Ice worms freeze at around −6.8 °C, and their bodies decompose after continuous exposure to temperatures above 5 °C. This decomposition process, known as autolysis, occurs when the cells produce digestive enzymes and self-destruct. The body literally melts.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:27 PM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


well they're stuffed.
posted by wilful at 5:27 PM on November 16, 2011


"If one warms an ice worm to even a few degrees above freezing the worm will melt into goo. During the coldest months of the year the worms do not appear on the surface at all; it is suspected that they creep deep into the ice and suspend their animations for the duration of winter."

The first sentence made me laugh.* The second one made me recoil in sheer terror...the self-suspending animation of the ice worms...ok, everybody back into the weird sci-fi movie now, time for pretending this exists in reality is over...oh God. What? Really? Nooooo...

*How does one warm a worm? And what do you do with the goo?
posted by iamkimiam at 6:14 PM on November 16, 2011


Uh-oh... Damn Interesting is back... Back again. DI's back! Tell a friend.

I love that site so much it hurts.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:28 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some researchers hypothesize that the worms use the large pore atop their heads to excrete a lubricant that allows them to slip through minuscule fissures, while others suggest that the same pore might instead secrete an antifreeze agent that melts a path through the ice.
Is there something I'm missing that explains why this is a difficult question to answer experimentally?
posted by eotvos at 7:02 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've seen these worms! I don't have anything substantial to add but still, I've seem em!
posted by yodelingisfun at 7:19 PM on November 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Is there something I'm missing that explains why this is a difficult question to answer experimentally?

Whenever I ask a question like this to a biology Ph.D. friend usually the answer is along the lines of "there are likely over 15,000 species of annelids in the world, even if there were a platoon of zoologists in the northwest that specialized in ringed worms, there are enough experiments to be done that trekking out to a glacier in spring to collect a population that is admittedly not very hardy may not attract but one or two researchers, if any. Given every university researcher is likely juggling a few dozen projects, its not hard to imagine even simple questions may not get satisfactorily answered for years or decades until it strikes someone's fancy well enough to finally tackle it." Or more generally, "there billions of animals, not many of us, we're busy, okay." Oh, and "unless we have reason to believe something cures cancer, getting funding is a bitch." After I get answers like this I am glad I did not pursue a Ph.D in biology.
posted by midmarch snowman at 8:47 PM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


In the movie, the bad guy will temporarily fend off the ice worms with a blow dryer, buy it will ironically malfunction because he's the crook who sold substandard heating coils to Conair, and he will uselessly toss the dryer at the inexorably advancing worms, right as he screams his last foggy breath.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:04 PM on November 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


My question is how did they get to the glaciers? Are they remnants of the last ice age and they are stranded on their home glacier for their remaining generations, or is there someway they can spread? A genetic analysis of worms on different glaciers would be interesting and would be one way to tell.
posted by ShooBoo at 11:26 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ice worms, I have heard of them before. I would love to see mire research in them just because extremophiles fascinate me.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:31 PM on November 16, 2011


Even if you're not on a glacier, don't despair! You might get to see other species.

I was surprised to find a blackish worm in my snow cave. This was seasonal snow (~3000' elevation in the Cascades), and I'd heard of ice worms as needing year-round glacier ice. A helpful worm biologist, Dan Shain, said that it was likely Mesenchytraeus gelidus or M. altus, who "tolerate seasonal snow but require several months of temperate weather to complete their life cycle".

These seasonal snow worms don't seem to have as much written about them as the glacier ice worms, at least online. Maybe because they're not such neat test organisms for the kind of research ShooBoo suggests? Their life and metabolism is even more amazing, to me -- that they can be active at freezing temperatures, but *not* melt when warmed up in the summer.

(Does anyone know, in the summer are they active, or do they aestivate or what?)
posted by away for regrooving at 2:00 AM on November 17, 2011


Obligatory.
posted by leslies at 4:52 AM on November 17, 2011


This is just more support for the possibility of life on other planets, perhaps even in our own solar system.
posted by tommasz at 5:09 AM on November 17, 2011


Devils Rancher: "In the movie, the bad guy will temporarily fend off the ice worms with a blow dryer, buy it will ironically malfunction because he's the crook who sold substandard heating coils to Conair, and he will uselessly toss the dryer at the inexorably advancing worms, right as he screams his last foggy breath."

And then as the mass of ice worms crawl over him... they melt into goo. Because he's well above freezing.
posted by Splunge at 7:04 AM on November 17, 2011


midmarch snowman: fuck that :) , this is INSTANT PhD thesis, combined with media attention. Some intrepid biology grad student is realizing this as we speak! (I hope...)
posted by IAmBroom at 7:27 AM on November 17, 2011


And then as the mass of ice worms crawl over him... they melt into goo. Because he's well above freezing.

Double irony is, at the end of the movie, the only thing that can save humanity from the ice worm onslaught is global warming.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:33 AM on November 17, 2011


Whenever I ask a question like this to a biology Ph.D. friend usually the answer is. . .

Thanks for the perspective, midmarch snowman. I hasn't considered the glut of potential candidates that biologists must face. Coming from a field where there are only a hand full of things to measure, measuring them is really difficult, and finding something entirely new and unexpected is revolutionary, it's strange to imagine working in an area where there's so many obvious, open questions that there isn't funding and manpower enough to address them.

It does make me wonder if there's an opportunity for citizen-science field work on these sort of topics. Perhaps not quite citizen-science in the usual sense, but something which lightly-trained enthusiasts could take on, with a bit of oversight and coaching from people who've spent time in bio labs. I'd certainly be keen to spend a week or two collecting and characterizing ice-worm secretions at my own expense, in exchange for the chance to taste a field about which I know nothing and perhaps a novelty co-authorship. Not all subjects are as sexy as ice-worms, I suppose - but, some must be.
posted by eotvos at 11:08 AM on November 17, 2011


This reminds me of the passage in Iain Banks' last book where a character is immersed in a virtual reality in which she is a creature who lives - and fights her enemies, who are in the same simulation - in the micro-fractures in solid ice.
posted by aught at 1:52 PM on November 17, 2011


I guess I should have linked to this guy, too.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:18 PM on November 17, 2011


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