Alaska Excursions

Alaska Excursions

A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.

Iditarod 41

Photos and stories from the last great race.

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Ice worms on the glacier

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Glaciers Galore

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Ice worms on the glacier

ON THE LEARNARD GLACIER -- Dusk was falling in a bowl above the entrance to the car-and-train tunnel at Whittier, and the ice worms were rising.

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Scientist probes the mysteries of tiny critters in very cold water

ON THE LEARNARD GLACIER -- Dusk was falling in a bowl above the entrance to the car-and-train tunnel at Whittier, and the ice worms were rising.

As they do each evening, the creatures had emerged all over, appearing underfoot, scattering across the glacier surface like countless tiny threads. Many seemed to spread from cracks and crevasses, where the one-fiftieth-inch diameter animals evidently hid out during the day.

One deep pool was crawling with hundreds of them, forming a mural of dark runes. Some waved their three-fourth-inch-long bodies erratically in the frigid swirl, as though the glacier itself had sprouted sparse hair.

Rutgers biologist Dan Shain, leading a hike with two of his students and several journalists, stooped by the water and videotaped the wormy scene.

''This just blows me away, even after looking at worms the whole summer,'' he said. ''This is an ice worm swimming hole. This is amazing.''

An assistant professor who specializes in the development and biology of leeches and worms at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J., Shain spent the past two months stalking one of Alaska's most unlikely creatures: Mesenchytraeus solifugus, the ''sun-avoiding'' worm.

Subsisting on a diet of algae and using tiny bristles called setae to maneuver, the worms live out their entire lives at a temperature where human flesh freezes and most life stops. They're so strange that many people dismiss them as a hoax. But they exist all right, occupying an unknown number of glaciers and ice fields along the Northwest Coast, between Washington and Southcentral Alaska.

With funding from the National Geographic Society and personal savings, Shain came to Alaska in June on a low-budget expedition with the goal of breaking the ice shrouding the mysterious animal. He found that ice worms are far more common than previously thought, thriving on ice fields in the Whittier-Portage area and a half dozen other glaciers around the state.

Byron Valley, destination of tourist-oriented ''ice worm safaris'' from the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, proved especially thick with worms.

''There are seven or eight colonies, each with millions of worms,'' Shain said. ''Each colony covers several acres. It's remarkable to see.''

''They're everywhere,'' added Angie Farrell, a graduate student who arrived in August with another student, Tarin Mason. ''You can't put your foot down without stepping on them.''

With a Ph.D. from Colorado State University, the 35-year-old Shain is a matter-of-fact scientist with a dry sense of humor, day-old stubble and a persistent streak. He believes he's stumbled onto that rare scientific treasure -- a barely known species. Since they were first described in the late 1800s, ice worms have been studied in any detail only once before, during a field expedition to Glacier Bay National Park in the 1960s. Scientific literature rarely mentions them at all.

''I'm blown away that no one else is studying them,'' Shain said. ''I feel so lucky, in a way. Either that, or I'm missing something.''

Why so much effort in pursuit of something most people would scrape off their boots?

''Worms occupy the most diverse niches on the planet,'' Shain said. ''They're in hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, and they're on Alaskan glaciers. That's about as extreme as you can get. ... That's my interest -- to understand how worms have modified a very simple body plan to survive in such harsh conditions.''

His fascination has taken him from the Golden Gate Bridge Park in San Francisco to the Amazon River basin in South America, where he spent last summer searching for leeches.

''Alaska has more bugs than the Amazon,'' Shain reported. ''Absolutely.''

Shain first got interested in ice worms a few years ago after seeing them on a restaurant place mat during a vacation to Alaska. The visitor center staff later sent him two batches of worms. He photographed them with electron microscopes and studied their body structure, then wrote an academic article on his findings with several colleagues.

Among other things, Shain discovered a weird pore in the top of their heads that appeared to be connected directly to their tiny brains. What does it do? Sense pressure changes in the air? Secrete a chemical trail for other worms to follow? Shain doesn't know.

Eventually, those worms died. This summer, Shain returned to gather more.

After buying a 1980 Honda Civic in Anchorage for $750, Shain collected some second-hand camping equipment, garden spades, plastic bowls and a posthole digger. He then began traveling glacier to glacier, spending Alaska's summer twilight in quest of worm homelands. Naturalists from the visitor center helped him, especially interpreter Mike Davidson. Often Shain climbed almost all night searching for his prey. Other obstacles included horizontal rain, white-out fog, fierce sunshine, cold snaps -- and fruitless day-long treks to barren glaciers.

It paid off. Shain found worms on about half of the 15 glaciers he visited near Anchorage, Whittier, Seward, Valdez and Juneau. Along the way, Shain shipped thousands of worms back to Rutgers. (Technique: Shovel ice with worms into Tupperware, tape shut, place in boxes insulated with camping trash, send by FedEx to New Jersey.)

Shain also documented the existence of other tiny creatures living out frigid lives on the glaciers: speck-sized fleas and tiny spiders, microscopic nematodes and tardigrades, as well as two minuscule animals Shain hasn't identified yet.

Instead of an ice-bound desert devoid of life, according to Shain, these local glaciers appear to support their own bizarre ecosystem, with ice worms merely the most visible resident.

Despite so much time with worms, Shain admitted that their behavior remains pretty hard to fathom. For instance, no one can explain the central question of ice worm existence: How are they able to exist only at 0 degrees Celsius?

Warm weather liquidates them. (They turn to mush.) And they will quickly die if they get too cold, a problem for surviving Alaska's winter.

''There are some big questions about what ice worms do in the winter,'' Shain said. ''They're very sensitive to cold. So they're going to have to burrow down somehow.''

Unlike other animals adapted to arctic conditions, ice worms are perpetually chilled to the freezing point of water at a cellular level -- a condition that would annihilate their genetic cousins, small worms in the Enchytraeidae family.

''There's probably no other animal in the world that could develop from egg to an adult at 0 degrees Celsius,'' Shain said. ''It's a huge obstacle that they've overcome. ... You appreciate it so much more when you're on the glacier freezing your ass off.''

But there are many more mysteries. How do ice worms find each other? How do they know when to submerge or surface? Shain has clocked big, lone worms traveling away from colonies at a lightning-paced slither of about 10 feet per hour. Are they establishing new colonies? Or just lost?

''I call them 'trekkies,' '' Shain said. ''They seem to be pioneers, to strike out where no ice worm has gone before.''

Still, judging from experiments at the lab and observations this summer, Shain said he suspects that the worms may be responding to multiple clues: sunlight, temperature, gravity, chemical trails on the ice, and an internal circadian rhythm.

Which adds up to a pretty amazing repertoire for a creature no thicker than a piece of string.

''They are definitely the most sophisticated animal that lives under these extreme conditions,'' Shain said. ''But the bottom line is we don't know how they navigate.''

Up on the Learnard Glacier two weeks ago, Shain and his two students wandered around, bent over, studying the ice. In one place, they found the worms had mixed in with silty muck. Some of the worms appeared reddish in the mud, then darker on the snow. What did that mean?

As the evening approached, more worms surfaced. They oozed this way and that -- up walls, down cracks, across scalloped basins. Hundreds of them festooned the walls of icy pools, oblivious to the current of rushing meltwater.

''This is a complete ice worm Jacuzzi,'' declared Shain, as he happily shot video and scooped samples. ''This is why I came. This is what I wanted to see.''

Despite the mysteries surrounding their lives, these worms seemed driven to rise, to surface, to spread across the ice. Perhaps one thing was certain.

''They're going out for dinner,'' Shain said.

(Reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at do'harra@adn.com.)

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