Bugs on Ice (Biographic)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Sean Schoville slips an elastic loop around his waist, securing a square piece of foam to his backside. “It’s a trick I learned from an entomologist in Siberia,” he says casually. “It helps you stay warm when you’re sitting on cold rocks all the time.” It may be June, but it’s frosty here at Summit Lake, the highest pass along the Alaska Highway in far northern British Columbia. Standing before us, the 1,905-meter (6,250-foot) Mount St. Paul looks like a scoop of stracciatella gelato, with dark slivers of limestone slicing through the pillowy white snow.

We’re here to hunt for an elusive and unassuming group of insects utterly unperturbed by the cold weather. In fact, they love it. Less than an inch long, these creatures—ice crawlers—look a little like an earwig that hasn’t been getting enough sun. They are wingless, have six legs, and a pale, segmented body that ends with two tail-like appendages known as cerci. When the Canadian entomologist Edmund Walker discovered them in Banff, Alberta, in 1913, he was so dumbfounded by their appearance that he gave the group the scientific nameGrylloblatta, which roughly translates to “cricket-roach.” Entomologists aren’t known for their media savvy, but that name certainly landed with a thud. “It’s not particularly flattering,” Schoville sighs. “It doesn’t sound great, and it doesn’t help you understand the group.”

But ice crawlers, as their common name suggests, have a thermal superpower, which allows them to flourish at the edges of glaciers. After the sun sets, they emerge from their hideouts deep within rock crevices to scavenge decaying plant matter along with comatose moths, flies, and other insects that have blown onto the snow. The genus Grylloblatta includes almost 40 described species in the western U.S., Canada, Russia, and the Far East. Highly adapted to their frigid environments, ice crawlers remain active at temperatures in the 20s—the same temperatures that cause other insects, including their prey, to shut down or freeze solid. Hold an ice crawler in the sweaty palm of your hand for too long, however, and they’ll go belly-up. One species has been found at 9,000 feet on Washington’s Mount Rainier. Others spend their lives at lower elevations, albeit in the cool crevices of talus piles or inside ice-filled caves.

Read the rest at Biographic