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Ocean Currents

Unexpected Creatures Thriving in the 49th State

Coral in Alaska? Frozen frogs? Iceworms?

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© Steve Downer/PBS

Brown bears. Bald eagles. Sea otters. These iconic Alaskan species that we all know and love deserve admiration, but this blog is not about them. This blog is about four of the lesser-known creatures that reside and thrive in Alaska’s vast lands and seas.

Coral reefs

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© Albert Linder/NOAA
Okay, so maybe coral reefs aren’t “lesser-known” generally speaking, but they are in the context of Alaska. If an image of basking in the warm tropical sun, toes in the sand whilst sipping a piña colada come to mind when you think coral, you are not alone. It may come as quite a surprise that the Alaskan Aleutian Islands are home to some of the most abundant and diverse coral ecosystems in the world. While these corals can look similar to the shallow coral reefs you might see snorkeling in the tropics, deep-sea corals found in cooler water (and at much greater depth) do not require sunlight to produce food. Instead most are filter feeders, grasping food particles from nearby currents. Alaska’s coral gardens serve critical ecosystem functions, like providing essential fish habitat for several commercial fish species. Thankfully, many of these corals are now protected by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council from bottom trawling, and areas of especially high density are closed to all forms of bottom contact gear, including longlines, pots, etc.

Frozen wood frogs

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© Steve Downer/PBS
Normally I focus on ocean creatures, so please forgive me for taking us on land, but I cannot help but divulge the lesser-known lives of the Alaskan-residing wood frog. These marvelous amphibians freeze for SEVEN months. In September, after a couple of weeks of cycling through freezing and thawing, the wood frog begins its frigid rest. No heart is beating, no blood is flowing. It is not until around April that they thaw, hop to the nearest pond and immediately start mating.

Ice worms

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Mesenchytraeus solifugus iceworms © Dick Culbert
Once known only to me in my nightmares, ice worms do indeed exist. Iceworms are thin segmented worms ranging from one to three centimeters long. Living their best lives in glaciers and snowfields, iceworms consume red algae and the remains of other small organisms. There is even an iceworm festival held every year in Cordova, Alaska—complete with the crowning of a Miss Iceworm.

Sea-ice amphipod Gammarus wilkitzkii

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© Raskoff/MPC
Moving back to the ocean, we find another peculiar ice-dwelling creature. Endemic to Arctic waters, this carnivorous amphipod (a form of crustacean) is usually found attached to the underside of Arctic sea-ice or burrowing in it for protection. Their nearly transparent bodies have thick antennae, strong claws and three pairs of reverse-bent legs. Rather small compared to the crustaceans most folks picture, at just six centimeters or less, this species lives up to seven years, and in this time plays a vital role in the Arctic marine ecosystem.

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