ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

The Discovery of Ice worms in Alaska

All About Ice worms

    Although this article is written with the idea that ice worms had never been identified before, geologist Israel C. Russell described them in his report on the 1891 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) expedition on the Agassiz and Newton Glaciers.

Fairbanks Daily Times - March 13, 1912

(By William A. Simonds.)

    Out of the frozen North, where it has made its home for centuries in the great glaciers moving slowly down the slopes of gigantic mountains, has come a small, dark-brown creature to claim its proper place in the animal kingdom.

    Prof. Trevor Kincaid, of the state university, pronounced it yesterday afternoon to be an "ice worm," and was authority for the statement that it is peculiar to the glaciers of Alaska and the North Pacific coast.

    Homer R. Burritt, mineral inspector of the general land office of the government, who bottled the specimen last summer on the Slope glacier in the Bering River coal fields and brought it to Seattle with him, will forward it to Washington, D. C., tomorrow or Tuesday to be examined by federal experts in that city.

    Should it be found to be what is claimed, it will put a quietus on the famous "ice-worm" joke of Alaska; and also add a startling and interesting page to animal history.

    Professor Kincaid, himself an entomologist of the world-wide reputation, noticed these small creatures several years ago while chopping in the ice on Muir glacier. Surprised that there should be any animal form alive in the immense rivers of ice in the Northwestern territory, he brought a few to the laboratory at the state university and put them under the microscope, but made no public announcement of his discovery. Yesterday, after examining the Burritt specimen, he made emphatic announcement of the fact that there is actually a small worm which lives on ice, a declaration that will attract attention over the world.

    Inspector Burritt came upon the little "ice-worm" accidentally while inspecting coal claims near the Bering River. He noticed long black streaks over certain of the glaciers shortly after noun, continuing until late in the day, when they disappeared. These streaks, he said, were about one foot wide and from fifty to 100 feet long.

    Interested, he went over to the Slope glacier and examined the streak, and found to his surprise that it was made up of a colony of small worms, none of them over one-quarter of an inch long.

    He told the other members or the party his experience, and they laughed at him. "The ice-worm joke," be it known, is of long standing in Alaska.

    On the following day the streaks showed upon the ice again after the sun had been shlning for some time, and he gathered a small bottleful. Even then big associates scorned the idea, and it was not until Professor Kincaid yesterday declared emphatically that there was a small worm llvlng on the glaciers that his claims were believed.

    When northerners learn of the fact that there is actually an ice-worm, there will be a convulsion in that territory which in point of excitement at least will rival the recent earthquakes. The old sourdoughs have long enjoyed tempting tenderfoots with the "ice-worm cocktails," and the possibility of there really being such an animal will cause considerable investigation.

Alaska's Venerable Tradition.

    According to the old tradition, whenever a tenderfoot strolls into an Alaskan bar and the drinks are ordered, some of the old-timers ask for "ice-worm" cocktails. The bartender, with grave face, extracts from a chunk of ice kept especially for that purpose a long white worm, and slices small bits into the different glasses. The tenderfoot naturally declines to drink; and it is not until he ls informed that the macaroni will not hurt him that he tumbles and "sets 'em up."

    According to Professor Kincaid, the habits of the peculiar animal are most remarkable. Its pigment is said to have the quality of absorbing the rays of sun and creating warmth to such an extent that when night comes and it sinks back into the ice it warms a small hole which fills with water, and in this the worms live.

    The food, Professor Kincaid said, is obtained from the debris carried along by the glaciers. When the land freezes over in winter, the worm settles back for a long rest, freezes entirely solid, so the professor affirms, and when spring comes around again thaws out and once more resumes life. This quality is said to be possessed by but few animals.

    ln appearance to the naked eye, the worms seem to be nothing but a bit of thread, perhaps a quarter of an inch long. Under the microscope, however, it reveals all the parts of the ordinary earthworm. It would require millions of them to create a colony sufficiently large to attract notice as it basked in the sun against the ice.

    Professor Kincaid declares that the ice-worm is peculiar to Alaska and the North Pacific coast. No such worms exist in the European or Asiatic glaciers, he believes. He declares, however, that in his opinion there should be some on the glaciers of the Olympic mountains, as well as the Cascades, of this state. - Seattle Times