(CNN) – A mysterious, tiny dragon lives among the ice of the Andes mountain range in South America, and if you blink an eye, you might miss it.
The Patagonian ice dragon is an insect over 1 centimeter (1.3 centimeters) long that lives in glaciers.
The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is a wonderful reserve of fresh water, but glaciers are a difficult place to live in. The Patagonian dragon, a type of stone fly, has adapted to survive in this frozen land.
The dragon is what scientists call extremes, meaning an organism that can survive in harsh environments.
This stone fly is the only true insect that lives in the Patagonian ice field, and its entire life cycle runs on the ice. Two types of ice dragon are known, Andiperla Morenensis s Andiperla Welinkibut there may be more waiting to be found.
That’s all scientists know, according to biologist Isaí Madríz. Everything else is hypothesis or guesswork.
But there are more questions than answers about the ice dragon.
small but great
Time may be running out for the Ice Dragon. This tiny insect is in danger of extinction because the ice cover it calls home is rapidly melting due to global warming.
Madríz is determined to learn as much as he can about dragons, and to share that knowledge with others, to better understand a rare creature that learned to survive in a frozen, barren landscape millions of years ago.
Often called a “bug whistleblower,” Madriz has spent years researching Patagonia’s biodiversity.
In addition to being a world expert on the primitive crane fly, he researches unknown insect lineages.
During his periodic expeditions to the ice field, Madriz began collecting observations of ice dragons and sharing them with labs studying the species in Argentina and Chile.
“I’m upside down on the ice, I move forward looking at the insects and I follow,” he says. “It’s like going back to childhood, looking at insects and seeing what they’re doing.”
Your detective work has paid off. So far, Madríz has been able to observe the behaviors of these insects that can only be seen in the field.
He had also seen ice dragon eggs up close, which was a rarity as little ice dragons proved elusive.
“The amazing thing is that once you start looking inside the eggs, it looks like they’re baby prawns,” Madriz said. “You can see the organism has already evolved.”
By the time the female ice dragon lays her eggs, the young bugs are fully formed. Scientists don’t yet know how long it takes for them to hatch, but their unseen nature is now well understood: tiny, translucent ice dragons. On ice, it is impossible to see them until they begin to grow and mature and their exoskeletons become darker.
Madríz also learns by chance that ice dragons can withstand another party.
To preserve and study samples, scientists often boil them briefly in water, which helps maintain shape without tissue breakdown.
Madriz immersed three ice dragons in boiling water for 10 to 15 seconds and turned around to do something else. When he came back, one of the Ice Dragons was crawling out of the board.
“We’ll find this species more interesting than we thought, because you don’t go from freezing to boiling water and live, except for something like tardigrades,” he said. Microscopic tardigrades have the ability to survive and even thrive in the harshest of environments.
Madriz hopes that many answers about the Ice Dragon will be revealed in the coming years. He wants to find out how these insects chose to make their habitat in glaciers, rather than water, and then adapted to a unique lifestyle.
Madríz and his fellow researchers work tirelessly to unravel the ins and outs of the species, including how they survive in the ice field and what they eat.
Ice dragon blood is currently believed to contain glycerol, a natural antifreeze, but the quantities and whether it prevents the insect’s blood from freezing is unknown. Future research could clarify this.
Ice dragons may feed on small algae in the ice. They may also eat other insects that live in nearby valleys and turn into glaciers and die there. Ice dragons are known to feed on cryoconite, the fine powder of ice made up of microbes and other small particles. This wind-blown dust can land on glaciers and reduce their reflection, making it easier for them to melt.
“When you find the only[insect]that can live in that environment, it has to have some impact on the environment,” Madriz said.
Madríz wants to start a captive breeding program in the next two years to help save this insect before its ecosystem disappears. Madriz hopes that increasing awareness of this mysterious creature can make its conservation self-sustaining. Having field guides teaching tourists about ice dragons can help educate travelers exploring the vanishing glaciers of Patagonia.
Instead of searching for the best snow-capturing selfie opportunities, visitors can search for the elusive ice dragon and come up with an understanding of an incredibly unique ecosystem, Madriz said.