By Lance Gritton MAEd
Riddle me this: When is a mouse not a mouse and an insect not an insect? When it’s winter on a glacier! (Hey I know it’s not a good riddle, but then you’re probably not a good Batman either). I know it’s one of the hottest summers on record and why am I talking about winter stuff? It keeps me cool that’s why. But glacier mice are all about keeping warm.
Glaciers are long rivers of ice made of packed snow that flow down a mountain. They are a year round water supply for millions of people around the world. Most contain some algae of some sort, and the ice and rocks that flow carve out smooth passes in the mountains, and boulders are relocated in a slow steady transit. For hundreds of years, it was assumed nothing could live on this bleak cold patch, but that’s what is so cool about science; it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts. Winds blow across these flat open areas and organic material is deposited on the surface. Now, anyone who cooks knows that the bane of tomatoes and fresh bread is mold. It’s everywhere, and it doesn’t care the season or if you refrigerate or leave it on the counter, it still grows if the food is left alone. Same thing happens on glaciers.
Molds are a member of the Fungi kingdom; a large kingdom of life with about 1.5 million species, so it’s not surprising that it can attack our produce no matter how we store it. It only needs water, and something to eat to live, and that can be just about anything that is alive or once was alive (like that organic material found blowing on and around glacier ice). Fungi are often confused with plants, and for a time, were thought to be plants. But they have no chloroplasts, the green little organs in plants that allow them to take the energy of the Sun and build complex sugar and protein molecules. Fungi are called reducers, because the break down complex molecules into simpler ones that it can eat. And plants store their food they make in starches; fungi store their food in glycogen, the same molecule we store it in for short term energy.
Now as certain species of fungi, that love cold, are blown across the glaciers, they start to grow on those organic molecules and get bigger. Now if you clean house like I do, from time to time, you might find bits of dust and hair clinging to together to make what one might call a dust bunny. Not a very good name, but the fluffiness makes one think of a bunny. (I think dust sheep was a better name but I digress). The fungi blowing across the ice do the same thing. They pick up bits of organic matter and inorganic stuff like dirt and dust and they get matted together in the long strands of the fungi (called hyphae, but that’s not important.) As they blow and grow, they roll around and form a sort of ball of fungi and dirt. These things get pretty big, about 7-8 centimeters (3-3.5 inches). Explorers of all nationalities have found these since they started, well exploring glaciers. (Too bad hacky sacks hadn’t been invented; they might have given some explorers something to do but watch slow ice move).
These balls of fungi were given the name glacier mice (maybe snipe hunting was just a little too far to go on open ice, so these were given that colorful name). Now these things like I said have been around for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They were blowing in the wind and few thought much about them. But then some curious folk decided to look more closely at them; where else, but Iceland.
Drs. Steve Coulson an Arctic biologist form Norway, and Nicholas Midgley from Nottingham Trent University, England, thought that these glacial tumbleweeds must pick up a large bit of dust and moisture on the travels being blown across the glacial surface. What they didn’t know was if the inside of this glacier mouse was warmer and maybe even more hospitable than the ice itself, so they took some from various glaciers and dissected them.
Inside the glacier mice, a pocket of dirt and water (read that organic life type stuff) was found along with a few unusual critters. Collembola, or spring tails are a common winter animal. I say animal because they have been kicked out of the insect phylum, and put in a phylum of their own, but I digress. These winter denizens can be found worldwide along with tardigrada, or water bears, and a few nematodes or worms were found living in these fungal balls.
I’m glad someone else studies that.