Cool idea

Ben Lee '06 spent last summer studying the mysterious ice worm of the Pacific Northwest

Uninspired by on-campus presentations intended to recruit students for university-funded summer research projects last year, Ben Lee ’06 came up with his own idea: seek out and study the mysterious ice worm of the Pacific Northwest.

“It took four days of library research on high-altitude life before I stumbled upon ice worms,” says Lee. “I’d never heard of them before.”

No wonder. Little is known or published about ice worms, but learning more could be important because they’re one of the few organisms on the planet that increase their activity as they get colder. In fact, ice worms react quite badly to warmth—hold one in your hand and it autolyses, or self-explodes.

“Ice worms burrow through solid ice during nightly migrations to the surface,” says Lee, a biology major. “They only exist along a thin belt of coastal mountains running from northern Oregon to southern Alaska.”

The tiny annelid creatures (segmented, like earthworms) are dark brown to black in color and about 2 centimeters long. They eat bacteria and algae in the snow.

With help from his advisor, Professor of Biology Peter Wimberger, Lee decided to undertake a genetic study of ice worm populations in the Olympic Mountains and compare them to populations found elsewhere in their range.

“Studying ice worm populations, which are completely isolated from each other, provides us with a good model of ‘island populations,’” says Lee. “With information about genetic relatedness, we can make inferences about historical geological events and how they affected the populations as a whole.”

Lee, who is apparently at home on all kinds of ice—he plays on the university’s recently formed hockey club team—has been offered a position at Rutgers University to do graduate work with a faculty member there, the only other person in the United States studying ice worms and glacial biology.