Photograph by Tom Craig / Trunk Archive

On Ice

words by willow defebaugh

The Patagonian ice dragon has adapted to survive amidst frigid glaciers—and plays a role in ensuring that neither become mythical.

“Our deepest fears are like dragons, guarding our deepest treasure.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

It was hard to grasp the enormity of it from afar. As our boat trudged on through the frigid waters, what began as an alabaster blur on the horizon started to slowly shapeshift into a stronghold of cerulean, a fortress crafted by time itself. I don’t know that words could ever convey the sublimity of it, this magnificent glacier. In its presence—nearly 100 feet tall and four miles wide—I felt inexpressibly small. And yet, there was something even smaller than myself, something as equally remarkable as this citadel of ice living in its winding towers: a dragon.


The Patagonian ice dragon isn’t really a dragon, of course. It’s an insect: a type of stonefly that measures at just over half an inch. It has adapted to life on the frozen glaciers of South America’s Andes Mountains, the only bug that lives on the Patagonian ice fields. As of now, only two species of the dragon have been identified—the Andiperla moranensis and Andiperla willinki—but more may exist. And while much of what surrounds these tiny creatures is shrouded in mystery, what scientists do know is nothing short of remarkable.


The ice dragon is what’s known as an extremophile, a term reserved for organisms that have adapted to survive in Earth’s harshest environments. Scientists believe that their bodies contain natural antifreeze, which stops their blood from turning solid amidst the piercing cold. When studying them, biologists also accidentally discovered that they are able to withstand boiling temperatures in addition to frozen ones—though it’s unclear why. What might these tiny beings have to teach us about withstanding the most severe conditions our world has to offer?


It’s no wonder that little is known about these insects. The entirety of their life cycles play out on the ice. Young dragons have been particularly difficult to find and for good reason, it turns out. When females lay their eggs, their young are almost fully formed within them—but they are translucent, much like the frozen expanses that envelope them. It’s only when they mature into adulthood that their exoskeletons take on a darker hue, making them slightly easier to spot. At times, I can’t help but envy their ability to be invisible, safely surrounded by walls of ice.


Ice dragons have a role to play in their ecosystems—even those as seemingly void of life as glaciers. They feed on something called cryoconite: a thin layer of dust that rests atop the ice, made of microbes and other tiny particles. When this powder accumulates, it can make glaciers less reflective and cause them to melt quicker. Patagonia’s glaciers are among the most rapidly melting on Earth, making these insects both valuable and vulnerable. As we floated past them, I sent a silent prayer that neither these dragons nor the castles they inhabit ever become mythical.


When we think of dragons, we think of winged behemoths, fire-breathing beasts of towering proportions that guard unimaginable treasures. But those that actually walk this Earth are no less awe-inspiring, and neither is what they protect. In times when we feel tempted to make ourselves invisible and encase ourselves in ice, we can remember the courage of small creatures such as these, to live in climates of uncertainty and extremes—and how marvelous they are to behold.


My trip to Patagonia has been the inspiration for the last few newsletters. What I have evaded mentioning, until now, is how fearful I was about embarking on it. Traveling is a very different experience for me now than it was a few years ago; I feel vulnerable in a way I have never navigated before. But if there’s anything I have learned in this time, it’s that when we close ourselves off to life’s trials, we close ourselves off to its riches. The degree to which we allow ourselves to be vulnerable is the degree to which we allow ourselves to experience wonder.

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