The view from Mount Rainier in Washington is breathtaking. Visitors can admire Mount Rainier and other nearby volcanoes, including Mount Adams. Scientist Scott Hotaling, stares down at his feet, examining the snow-covered ground, where thousands of tiny black worms pop up from the ground, on the previously blank expanse of white snow.

The surface of the glacier rapidly changes as more and more small black creatures called "ice worms" emerge, slithering between ice crystals and glittering in the sunlight.

Ice Worms

Ice Worm Against Fingernail
(Photo : Photo from wikimedia.org)

Ice worms were discovered in 1887 on the Glaciers of Alaska's Muir . They have now been discovered on the majority of the coastal glaciers in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.

It was a thrilling find since for the longest time, biologists thought high-altitude glaciers were sterile environments where reproduction was practically impossible.

As Scott Hotaling described, ice worms are the 'mascots of ice glaciers' since they are the largest organism in the world that spends their whole existence in ice, and are often found near ice, where hundreds of worms may be detected per square meter.

Black ice worms are roughly one inch long and are distant relatives of earthworms. Instead of soil, these worms move through glacial ice, consuming snow algae, bacteria, and everything else that ends up on the snow.

They may spend their whole lives on snow and ice, yet they cannot withstand subfreezing temperatures.

According to Hotaling's thermal testing, the ice worms can survive conveniently for at least a day or two in temperatures as high as 75 degrees Fahrenheit (around 24 degrees Celsius), and while they thrive at temperatures around 32 degrees Fahrenheit (zero degrees Celsius), they end up dying when rates drop below that limit.

The Latin name for the ice worm species reflects its habits. This worm is fittingly named Solifugus, which means "sun-avoider." During bright sunny days, it hides deep in the ice and snow, emerging as darkness approaches.

It's feeding time for them. Ice worms, according to scientists, feed on snow algae, pollen grains, ice, and snow. Snow buntings and other birds, in turn, feast on ice worms. Despite being more often found in permeable snow and "solid ice," ice worms appear to travel with ease since they use setae, which are tiny bristles on the exterior of their bodies, to grab the ice and drag themselves along. On the surface of a glacier, they have been measured moving at 10 feet per hour.

With their dark bodies that must absorb heat, ice worms may influence how quickly a glacier melts. The presence of dark-colored glacier algae is known to fasten melting, and ice worms obviously alter the surface of a glacier.

Also read: New Discovery: 3.4-Billion-Year-Old Microfossils Found Could Help Explain How Life Started

NASA rewards research about ice worms

Dr. Dan Shain, an evolutionary Biologist from Rutgers University, received more than $200,000 for his research on the survival of ice worms in extreme conditions.

His findings caught NASA's interest because the circumstances of the glaciers are similar to those on certain frigid planets that scientists believe may sustain life. Understanding how ice worms survive will aid scientists in the discovery of life on other cold worlds such as Europa.

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