Wildly Successful: The Glacier Rock Crawler

By: Jim Knox

Extremophiles are a hardy bunch. By definition there are none hardier than these creatures which call the planet’s most extreme habitats home. Swimming in Yellowstone’s scalding 450 degree fahrenheit hot springs, colonizing Kilauea’s fresh lava fields and crawling within the ice-bound recesses of glaciers, these life forms prove that where there’s a habitat, there’s a way.

Among this cohort of ultimate survivors are a family of creatures discovered little more than a century ago. Inhabiting remote, isolated mountaintops, glaciers and ice caves in Siberia, Japan, China, Canada and the United States. These small life forms astound us with each discovery of their emerging life history.

Glacier Rock Crawlers, also known as icebugs or ice crawlers, represent a little known and ancient lineage of insects which have survived undetected among the planet’s most remote and barren glacial regions. With the first species discovered in 1914, the Grylloblatidae Family, also known as “cricket cockroaches” for their shared features with both insect families, are considered to be the ancestors of many modern insect species.

When I first learned of these slender little creatures inhabiting glaciers, I wondered how in the world they did that. How did they survive, quite ably, within high altitude glaciers devoid of growing plants, native animals and water? The climate is forbidding enough but until the discovery of these little beasts, the habitat was not even considered habitat in that it lacked food and constant access to water. Although this was incorrect, it underscores the fact, and that notion, and their existence was completely overlooked by science for centuries.

So how do they do it? Just how do these insects do what others cannot? To properly answer that, we need more information about them, but in essence, their success is built upon the fact that they exploit habitats that are nearly inhospitable. In short, they succeed because they completely avoid competition by ecologically venturing where others cannot follow.

Topping out at a mere one inch in length, Glacier Rock Crawlers are slender, light brown insects resembling crickets and cockroaches. A key feature of these little beasts, like their namesake cousins, is their adaptability in diet. Though they prefer animal matter, Glacier Rock Crawlers are omnivores, surviving off plant matter when available. In fact, although their lifestyle is predatory by nature, when insect or arthropod prey is in short supply, they simply scavenge. These strictly nocturnal wingless insects venture out under the cover of darkness to avoid predatory birds and hunt and scavenge glacier fields for aeolian deposition–the insect and plant matter deposited by high altitude winds. Lacking eyes, their elongated antennae provide them with powerful scent detection capability, enabling them to find a meal delivered by wind, exposed by melting snow and ice, or beneath stones at the edges of glaciers.

A casual look reveals species in need of even more study. Given that each one of the 26 known species of Glacier Rock Crawlers is classified as a cryophile–vitally linked to constant near-freezing temperatures–the more we know about these remarkably hardy yet environmentally sensitive creatures, the better informed we are about the health of our highly variable planet.

Like many wild creatures, they embody a powerful irony in their survival capabilities. These are creatures which can withstand a lifetime of greater than five years–an incredibly long lifespan for an insect–subjected to high velocity glacial winds, prolonged cold, darkness, and variable access to food. Yet, this same tougher-than-tough micro beast can perish due to exposure to the heat of a human hand!

Even older than their ancient cockroach descendants, who have been thriving on Planet Earth for no less than 320 million years, these living fossils have pioneered a strategy for success which relies upon their own unique strengths, rather than on competition with legions of their fellow insect kin.

Although an inevitable aspect to our existence is the need to compete. In some instances at least, doesn’t it make sense to emulate those who thrive by dispensing with competition–by endeavoring to operate where others wouldn’t attempt?

I have made certain promises to myself, not for the new year, but for all years ahead. Aside from the more typical promises of improving fitness and learning new skills, I have made one more. I have promised myself I will venture into realms others fail to consider. Like these little-known creatures which inhabit the planet’s most remote and inhospitable regions, I will explore and I will utilize the strengths nature has given me. I’m certain it won’t be easy, but I invite you to join me. If you take that parallel path, I am confident, neither you nor I, will regret it.

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