Scaling Glaciers to Study Minuscule Worms


By Roman Dial, as told to Jed Lipinski

Bhutan, August 2012.

At 16,000 feet above sea level, the air is shockingly clear. Fields of rock and herds of Himalayan blue sheep stand in sharp relief against distant white peaks. Our team—two Bhutanese cooks, two horsemen, a guide, and my 25-year-old son and part-time research assistant, Roman Jr.—has set up base camp on Gangla Karchung mountain beneath a receding glacier. As night falls, a few of us strap on our crampons and headlamps, grab our ice axes, and head up the mountain. The temperature is hovering around the freezing point: perfect for an ice worm sighting.

These worms aren’t easy to find. They look like black threads a few centimeters long, and they spend much of their lives buried in glacial ice. The best time to find them is monsoon season, when they thrive in the glacier’s meltwater pools.

I’m a biology professor at Alaska Pacific University. I became interested in ice worms while hiking and skiing in the Alaskan wilderness, and I noticed these tiny worms living on the ice. Technically, nothing should survive there. “How did they adapt to such an unforgiving environment?” I wondered. It seemed like a simple question. But ice worm research moves slowly—at a glacial pace, you might say! Although an American geologist first documented them on Alaska’s Muir Glacier in 1887, there’s a lot we don’t know about them.


Here’s what we do know: They only come out at night because they’re susceptible to UV rays. They feed on pink-colored snow algae and pollen grains that collect on a glacier’s surface. We think they get around by using tiny bristles on their sides to cling to ice crystals and propel themselves forward. And they’re very temperature-sensitive but also rugged. At temperatures above 41°F, their bodies melt, but they can survive temperatures as low as 20°F.

It’s this ability to live at subfreezing temperatures that makes ice worms valuable to science. Harnessing the mechanisms that enable them to survive could allow us to keep donated organs alive for longer periods or even help NASA understand how life could exist on colder planets. But before we can do that, we need to know the basics. Almost nothing is known about their reproductive biology, overwintering behavior, or geographic range.

Looking for ice worms is risky. A few years ago, I was searching for them with my two kids on the Harding Icefield, a featureless expanse of ice on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. One night, a winter storm blew in, flattening our tent with howling 100-mile-per-hour winds. Another time, after poring over Google Earth for potential ice worm habitats, I visited the Yunnan Valley in southwestern China. While hiking up a forested hillside alone, I stumbled across a rotten wooden bow with a rawhide string. “Cool bow,” I thought. Then I saw the bones: three fleshless human skeletons splayed out beneath the boulders. Apparently, they’d been hunting when a rock slide hit them. I quickly hiked back down the mountain.

Bhutan is similarly spooky. Most of the glaciers are unstable and full of crevasses. Each morning, our Buddhist guide burns incense and prays for our safety. As far as I know, no one has ever found ice worms here. In the 1970s, a Chinese taxonomist described an Asian ice worm species from Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo Valley, whose sacred waterfalls are thought to have inspired the fictional paradise Shangri-la. But the original sample was lost, and the Chinese won’t let foreign scientists look around. Rumors abound that the valley conceals a secret military base or a downed World War II plane full of gold or a criminally vast logging operation. Regardless, we’re not invited. Northern Bhutan, which sits on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, is as close as we can get. So that’s where we go.

As soon as we step onto the ice, my son halts. “These look like worms,” he says, bending down to examine a meltwater pool. It’s one of dozens spread across the glacier, and it’s writhing with activity. Thirty seconds on the glacier and we’ve found the fabled Tibetan ice worm? I crouch down for a closer look. My son scoops the tiny creatures into his hand.

Then he frowns. “I don’t think these are annelids, Dad,” he says, referring to the phylum ice worms belong to. “They look like ... midges.”

He flips his binoculars around, using them as a microscope. He’s right. What looked like ice worms are in fact the larvae of glacier midges, a kind of wingless fly. As adults, they crawl up the glacier, mate, and crawl back down to lay eggs in the pools. They’re fascinating insects—but not what we’re here for.

Over the next two weeks, we come across other glacial biota, including snow fleas and a mite that looks like a daddy longlegs. But there’s no sign of ice worms. Without Asian ice worm samples, we can’t do genetic analysis to determine whether they differ from the North American worms. Are they more durable? Less? How do they live inside the Himalayan ice?

So much of the natural world has been explored and demystified. The elusive ice worm? It’s one of the planet’s enduring secrets—which is what keeps me on its trail.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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