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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tough Bugs: Ice Worms and the Poet

Ever heard of a tough bug that only lives in glaciers, shuns daylight as much as vampires do, and  has a mysterious hole in its forehead whose purpose is unknown?
And that inspired a poem by the author of The Shooting of Dan McGrew? Or a man named E.J. "Stroller" White, who worked for the Klondike Nugget and invented some tall tales?

The Ice Worm appears

Welcome to the ice worm. Discovered in 1887 in Alaska, this tiny little creature (it grows up to an inch, and is petty skinny) is an extremophile. It's found on glaciers in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, and to date hasn't been found anywhere else.

Stroller White and a story

But let's start with the young man named Stroller White, who wrangled a job in 1898 with the Klondike Nugget but had to deliver increased sales or face being fired. So Stroller invented a new creature he called ice worms, and started writing about them after a huge storm. He claimed that the ice worms lived in caves in glaciers, and chirped noisly as they basked in the sun.
Stroller ended one letter he wrote to a government official curious about ice worms:
The chirp of the ice worm is not made with the mouth but from a whistle on its tail. The head end is always too busy to engage in vocal exercise, being constantly at work boring more house room in the solid ice in order that it may have room for growth and expansion.
Dictated by E.J.W.
Typewritten by Ann Jones.
Mending of all kinds. Buttons sewed on while you wait.
Stroller said the worms grew to four feet in twenty days. Their fame spread, and bars started offering Ice Worm Cocktails. Stroller boosted sales of the Klondike Nugget so much that he kept his job.
The story of Stroller's ice worms might have reached the ears of Robert William Service (1874-1958), who wrote poems which became very popular, such as The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. He offered a publisher $100 to print a book of his poems, but the publisher handed the money back and offered him a contract. He earned so much from the poems that he could quit his job as a banker – over the years he made half a million dollars from the poems and could wander the world at will.
In 1940 Service published The Ballad of the Ice Worm Cocktail, about a boastful Brit who was mocked by the locals when they challenged him to earn the title of Sourdough by drinking one such cocktail.
Extracts from the Ballad appear in quotes below, among the little bits of information about the real ice worm.
Global warming poses as threat to the ice worms, because as they glaciers melt, the area they can live in shrinks. Unlike other living things, this will doom them, because they never leave the glacier they were born on – they die if they leave it - and so every glacier has its own set of ice worms.
They want to make you, honoured sir, a bony feed Sourdough.
The same, some say, is one who's seen the Yukon ice go out,
But most profound authorities the definition doubt,
And to the genial notion of this meeting, Major Brown,
A Sourdough is a guy who drinks ... an ice-worm cocktail down.
Ice Worms
The ice worm's behaviour should earn it the right to be regarded as the worm equivalent of vampires. They, too, shun the sunlight, and if an ice wormis unable to drill down - using little bristles growing out of their sides - into the glacier to escape warmth, and its temperature soars from the zero degrees centigrade it prefers, then the ice worm simply melts. Their Latin name is "solifugus" which means "sun-avoiding".
Yet all is clear as you draw near - for coyley peering out
Are hosts and hosts of tiny worms, each indigo of snout.
And as no nourishment they find, to keep themselves alive
They masticate each other's tails, till just the Tough survive.

These little worms,  which can recognize light and dark even though they are eyeless, look like pieces of dark thread on the ice. Snacking on snow algae and pollen carried by the wind, the ice worms congregate in colonies numbering a few hundred thousand to an astounding twenty million each, with some colonies covering up to thirty acres.
Then deeply in a drawer he sought, and there he found a jar,
The which with due and proper pride he put upon the bar;
And in it, wreathed in queasy rings, or rolled into a ball,
A score of grey and greasy things, were drowned in alcohol.
The ice worms burrow into the glaciers, and some have been noticed up to six feet or so below the surface.
Their bellies were a bilious blue, their eyes a bulbous red;

Their back were grey, and gross were they, and hideous of head.
Related to the earthworm, they exist in astounding numbers – one glacier is estimated to be home to seven billion of the little worms. They also crowd together on the surface of the glaciers, with between 30 and 300 ice worms counted per square meter.
But with a gesture of disgust the Major shook his head.
"You can't bluff me. You'll never drink that gastly thing," he said.
"You'll see all right," said Deacon White, and held his cocktail high,
Till its ice-worm seemed to wiggle, and to wink a wicked eye.
How long do the ice worms live? Nobody knows, and some estimates are between five and ten years; ice worms in laboratories can survive for just over a year without any food.
It must be done . . . He swallowed hard . . . The brute was at his throat.
He choked. . . he gulped . . . Thank God! at last he'd got the horror down.
Nobody knows why ice worms don't freeze at zero Celsius – perhaps it is connected to the type of antifreeze which some scientists believe the ice worm secretes to allow it to burrow through the glacier.
And ere next night his story was the talk of Dawson Town,
But gone and reft of glory was the wrathful Major Brown;
For that ice-worm (so they told him) of such formidable size
Was - a stick of stained spaghetti with two red ink spots for eyes.
The large hole on the top of the ice worm's head might be used to excrete some kind of salt, to help them melt the ice in front of them, or some kind of lubricant, to make them slippery so that they can squeeze through crevices in the glaciers. Nobody knows for sure what it is used for.

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