The Patagonian Ice Dragon is an insect just over half an inch (1.3 cm) long and it lives on glaciers.
The Southern Patagonian Icefields may be impressive reserves of fresh water, but glaciers are a difficult place to live. Dragón de la Patagonia, a type of firefly, has adapted to survive in this frozen land.
The dragon is what scientists call an extreme, or a creature that can live in extreme environments.
This firefly is the only true insect that inhabits the ice fields of Patagonia, and their entire life cycle takes place on ice. There are two known species of ice dragons, Andiperla morenensis and Andiperla willinki, but there may be more waiting to be found.
That’s the extent to which scientists know, biologist Isaí Madríz says. Everything else is the basis of hypothesis or speculation.
But there are more questions than answers about the ice dragon.
Small but mighty
Time may be running out for the ice dragon. This tiny insect is in danger of extinction because the ice it calls home is melting rapidly due to global warming.
Madríz tried to learn everything he could about the dragon and share that knowledge with others, to better understand a rare creature that has learned to survive in a frozen, barren landscape. millions of years ago.
Madríz, commonly known as the “bug detective”, has been studying Patagonia’s biodiversity for many years. In addition to being the world’s expert on primitive crane flies, he also investigates poorly understood insect lines.
During regular expeditions to the ice fields, Madríz began collecting observations of ice dragons and sharing them with laboratories studying the species in Argentina and Chile.
“I was crouching over the ice, inching little by little as I watched the insects and watched them,” he said. “It’s like going back to when you were a kid, looking at insects and just figuring out what they do.”
His work has paid off. So far, Madríz has been able to observe the behavior of these insects that can only be witnessed in the field.
He had seen ice dragon eggs up close – a rarity since young ice dragons proved elusive.
“The amazing thing is, when you start looking at the eggs, it looks like a small shrimp,” says Madríz. “You can see the whole organism has been developed.”
By the time the female ice dragon lays her eggs, the young insects are fully formed. Scientists still don’t know how long it takes them to emerge from their eggs, but their invisible nature is now well understood – that’s because young ice dragons are translucent. On ice, they cannot be seen until they begin to grow and mature and their exoskeleton becomes darker.
Madríz also happened to learn that ice dragons can withstand another harshness.
To preserve and study the specimens, scientists often boil them in water for short periods of time, which preserves their shape without the tissue collapsing.
Madríz dipped the three ice dragons in boiling water for about 10 to 15 seconds and then went back to work. When he turned around, one of the ice dragons was crawling out of the plate.
Madríz hopes that more answers about ice dragons will be revealed within the next few years. He wants to explore how these insects choose to make glaciers their home, instead of water, and then adapt to a unique way of life.
Madríz and his fellow researchers are working to uncover the inner workings of the species, including how it survives in ice fields and what it eats.
There is currently speculation that the blood of the ice dragon contains glycerol, a natural anticoagulant, but the amount and whether it keeps the insect’s blood from clotting is unknown. Future research may tell the story.
Maybe ice dragons eat small algae on the ice. They can also feed on other insects that live in nearby valleys and are blown by the wind, land on glaciers and die. And ice dragons are known to eat cryoconite, the fine powder on ice made up of bacteria and other small particles. This wind-blown dust can land on glaciers and reduce their reflectivity, which can make them more likely to melt.
“When you find the only (insect) that can live in that environment, it has to have some impact on the environment,” Madríz said.
He wants to start a captive breeding program in the next few years to help save the insects before their ecosystem disappears. Madríz hopes that awareness of this mysterious creature can make its conservation self-sustainable. Enlisting field guides to teach tourists about ice dragons can also help educate visitors to explore Patagonia’s disappearing glaciers.
Instead of searching for ice selfies, visitors can come in search of the elusive ice dragon and go for a walk with an understanding of a unique ecosystem, says Madríz.