Strange Molelike Animal Melts Ice Tunnels With Its Head

The hotheaded naked ice borer may have feasted on a polar explorer.

By Tim Folger|Tuesday, April 01, 2008

This article originally ran in the April 1995 issue of DISCOVER. We republish it today because of its renewed relevance. The article received more reader mail than any other DISCOVER article to that point; many of the letters are included below.

Aprile Pazzo was about to call it a day when she noticed that the penguins she was observing seemed strangely agitated. Pazzo, a wildlife biologist, was in Antarctica studying penguins at a remote, poorly explored area along the coast of the Ross Sea. "I was getting ready to release a penguin I had tagged when I heard a lot of squawking," says Pazzo. "When I looked up, the whole flock had sort of stampeded. They were waddling away faster than I'd ever seen them move."

Pazzo waded through the panicked birds to find out what was wrong. She found one penguin that hadn't fled. "It was sinking into the ice as if into quicksand," she says. Somehow the ice beneath the bird had melted; the penguin was waist deep in slush. Pazzo tried to help the struggling penguin. She grabbed its wings and pulled. With a heave she freed the bird. But the penguin wasn't the only thing she hauled from the slush. About a dozen small, hairless pink molelike creatures had clamped their jaws onto the penguin's lower body. Pazzo managed to capture one of the creatures -- the others quickly released their grip and vanished into the slush.

Over the next few months Pazzo caught several of the animals and watched others in the wild. She calls the strange new species hotheaded naked ice borers. "They're repulsive," says Pazzo. Adults are about six inches long, weigh a few ounces, have a very high metabolic rate -- their body temperature is 110 degrees -- and live in labyrinthine tunnels carved in the ice.

Perhaps their most fascinating feature is a bony plate on their forehead. Innumerable blood vessels line the skin covering the plate. The animals radiate tremendous amounts of body heat through their "hot plates," which they use to melt their tunnels in ice and to hunt their favorite prey: penguins.

A pack of ice borers will cluster under a penguin and melt the ice and snow it's standing on. When the hapless bird sinks into the slush, the ice borers attack, dispatching it with bites of their sharp incisors. They then carve it up and carry its flesh back to their burrows, leaving behind only webbed feet, a beak, and some feathers. "They travel through the ice at surprisingly high speeds, " says Pazzo, "much faster than a penguin can waddle."

Pazzo's discovery may also help solve a long-standing Antarctic mystery: What happened to the heroic polar explorer Philippe Poisson, who disappeared in Antarctica without a trace in 1837? "I wouldn't rule out the possibility that a big pack of ice borers got him," says Pazzo. "I've seen what these things do to emperor penguins -- it isn't pretty -- and emperors can be as much as four feet tall. Poisson was about 5 foot 6. To the ice borers, he would have looked like a big penguin."

News of the penguin-eating ice borers drew more letters from Discover readers than any other piece in the magazine's previous 15-year history. Most readers were amused and elaborated on the hoax. A few were chagrined and chastised us. Here are the letters we ran in the June Discover:

June 1995 - Letters: Naked Truth

My staff and I were extremely excited to read about the hotheaded naked ice borers in your April issue [Breakthroughs]. What an extraordinary creature! This would be a fantastic addition to our collection and would, incidentally, increase our membership at a time when, like all nonprofit institutions, we are struggling to keep our heads above water(or perhaps more appropriately, above the ice).

Naturally, in the world of rare animals, it is the first institution to display the unusual that receives the most benefit. Therefore, in anticipation of being able to display these creatures, our board of directors has already approved an outlay of $2 million for the construction of a special area to house them.

We would like to contact Aprile Pazzo as soon as possible to receive from her a full description of the animal's habitat, food, and recreational needs. In particular, we are hoping that the hotheaded naked ice borer can exist on something other than penguin. We had contacted the California Academy of Sciences in hopes of eliciting their cooperation on donating some of the weaker members from their penguin exhibit, but they were cool on the subject, to say the least.

We are looking forward to hearing from you as soon as possible, and meanwhile we wait in 110 degree anticipation.

Shigatsu Baka
The Small Mammal Zoo and Discovery Center
San Francisco

I am a fourth-generation descendant of the great Philippe Poisson, mentioned in your April issue. I wish to express gratitude to Aprile Pazzo for restoring the reputation of my ancestor. I have in my possession his diaries, recovered from his last known encampment. Here is a translation from the French of an entry dated April 1, 1837:

"Saw three of the Creatures today but failed to capture any. If I do not deceive myself, I am the first person to observe them. Their repulsiveness is formidable."

There follows a description of the hotheaded naked ice borers("tetes-chaudes des glaciers") exactly as Dr. Pazzo found them to be. This description has always been dismissed as the result of an unfortunate tendency of my forebear to abuse absinthe, especially by the contemporary scholar Heinrich von Deresteapril.

Joan Walker


I am very surprised that DISCOVER would report the common ice mole rat as a scientific "breakthrough." It has been known for many years as the only terrestrial mammal in Antarctica. We have a rather large collection of these little mammals, known to us as Thermocephalusfrigidash kemphos. You have illustrated only the rather plain female in your report. I am sure your readers would have been more interested in seeing the spectacular male with its striped purple-and-yellow head,which contrasts markedly with its dark blue posterior.

I must also point out an error in your reported body temperature of 110degrees. The anterior body temperature is actually 107.6 degrees,whereas the posterior has a temperature of only 70.2 degrees. This anterior-posterior heat flux is important in preventing these ice mole rats from sinking through the ice sheets and is unknown in any other mammal.

Loof von Lirpa
Department of Vertebrate Zoology
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, D.C.

Last Christmas, on a visit to New York City, I was walking past the Central Park ice skating rink at twilight. The rink was already closed,but there was one lone skater practicing her figures. I was hurrying,but out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the skater losing her balance. Everything happened so fast. She seemed to be sinking into the ice, which had turned into a pool of slush about six feet in diameter.To my horror, she dropped out of sight in moments--but not before I saw a tiny, ugly, rodent like head peer up briefly from the slush. I rushed over, but by then all that remained were the metal portions of the skates. Because I had had more than one drink at a friend's office Christmas party, my mind could not accept what I had seen. I'm ashamed to admit that I brushed off this bizarre event. Like a typical New Yorker, I just didn't want to "get involved."

Now I realize what must have occurred. As much as we have all been concerned about the northward progression of killer bees into our country, I'm afraid that I have more bad news to report. Apparently these horrid creatures, these ice borers, may be invading our temperate zone.

David L. Charney, M.D.
Alexandria, Va.

Aprile Pazzo's discovery was fascinating, although not wholly unexpected considering Pazzo's renown for fantastic and even unbelievable research observations. Further, although Pazzo is known to be on the cutting ice of science, in this instance it must be pointed out that her description of hotheaded ice borers is not new.

On April 1, 1950, Dr. Auguste Fou, while investigating the disappearance of several peewee hockey players in Quebec, discovered a colony of hotheads living in the ice between the blue lines at the hockey rink at which the players were last seen. Unfortunately, Fou was denounced by the Quebec Junior Hockey League; his findings were never made public, nor was he heard from again. Pazzo's recent corroboration,therefore, is a welcome addition to the heretofore repressed information regarding a hot animal whose existence is now out of the deep freeze.

Robert Wolkow
New York

At first I suspected the old LSD in the coffee trick. Then I noticed that although it was March, I was reading your April issue. Your picture of the "ice borer" shows a Namibian mole rat with either an osteoma or a funny hat. Disregarding the evolutionary and geographical quandaries such a creature would present, let me deal with the inevitable metabolic problem. I am certain that experts in this field even now are calculating that in order to perform the thermal feats described, the creature would have to eat penguins for 483 hours each day. I have a solution: the beast has harnessed the secrets of cold fusion.

John O. Ives
Associate Professor of Psychiatry
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vt.

I want Aprile Pazzo to send me some hotheaded naked ice borers. This is the perfect solution for removing unwanted ice and snow from my driveway. It would also help me cull the flock of equally repulsive, unwanted bald-headed Chicago penguins that roost in my backyard every winter.

Robert Meyer
Buffalo Grove, Ill.


 I read with keen interest your gripping article on the hotheaded nakedice borers and was reminded of another savage carnivore here in thePacific Northwest: the dreaded Puget Sound fanged slug.

While this shell-less snail (class Gastropoda; subclass Pulmonata) measures only four to six inches long, convergent evolution has bestowed on it dentition identical to that of the great white shark. Additionally, this mollusk is capable of oozing forward with hideous speed, being clocked at 1.3 meters per hour during an attack.

Hunting in packs, the gastropods prefer to prey on the Northwest spotted owl, which the slugs stalk by smearing unspeakable slime trails on tree branches that the owl cannot then firmly grasp. As the slugs hunker in ambush, the unsuspecting bird (order Strigiformes) lands and suddenly finds itself upside-down and swinging like a pendulum from the buttered perch, talons gripping in astonishment. As is well known, the owl cannot initiate flight from this position and is thus forced to dangle stoically as the herd of maddened snails rushes in, fangs flinging spit.

It is the horror of every nature walker to come upon the disgusting aftermath of this plunder -- two knobby owl legs suspended from a tree limb, a beak and feathers on the woodland floor, the forest serenity shattered by the belches of satiated slugs.

William Peters
Bothell, Wash.


I was quite surprised by your report on Pazzo's discovery of Muklukmoccasini borealis in Antarctica.

Long known by its more common name, feater (presumably a contraction of"feet" and "eater"), this small animal has been hunted by generations of northern Minnesotans both for food and for leather. To fend off starvation, early Swedish immigrants would locate a soft spot in the ice, have a Norwegian immigrant sit on it, and, when he would abruptly rise after a short interval, pick the featers off his backside. Lacking a handy Norwegian, less frugal hunters were known to substitute a chicken on a rope. Properly prepared, feater meat tastes like well-aged bald eagle.

After the carcass is carefully cleaned through a slit down its spine, the hide can be stretched and cured over a small shoe tree to form a moccasin. These were sold in clothing stores across the nation as bedroom slippers during the middle of this century and could be recognized by the small rodent-like face and ears on the toe area.

Overexploitation of this lucrative market and the nearly insatiable hunger of Swedish immigrants essentially wiped out the wild featers. Surviving populations may be found under sawdust in northern icehouses,where they are raised commercially year-round and sold to those of Swedish extraction who still consider lutefisk a delicacy.

G. James van Osdol
Nokomis, Fla.

Aprile Pazzo's claim to have "discovered" the ice borer is unfortunately false. While Pazzo may have discovered a new species, residents of the northern forests of Michigan and lower Canada have long known about the ice borer's cousin, the woodland hellion mole (Noncompos mentis). This small, hairless predatory mammal is nocturnal and hunts in packs, ambushing and devouring prey many times its size. Although few people have seen the hellion mole, residents of the North Woods rarely risk traveling alone on foot at night. While the mole is believed to supplement its diet with deer, its favored prey is the rare northern jackalope. Last year United States Forestry Service biologist Harry Duphis discovered an abandoned hellion mole nest containing dozens of antlers and bones, including one four-foot-long bone resembling a human humerus. Duphis speculates that the hellion mole maybe responsible for the possible extinction of the Canadian yeti.

Rick Campbell
Rochester, Mich.


The showman P. T. Barnum said that a sucker is born every minute, and I certainly would have been the next one if my husband hadn't been nearly as gullible. The article on hotheads certainly had me going, though. With a little help from co-workers, we deciphered Aprile Pazzo as Italian for "April Fool" and realized that the photo illustration was doctored. The next question is: How many more of the articles were April Fools' jokes? Rats on Prozac, mini-mammoths, and buddy-system birds all now appear to stretch reality beyond belief. Please sort out the truth from fiction for us, and I'm glad this only happens once a year!

Jenny Garner
The Dalles, Oreg.

Thank you so very much for solving an unsolved mystery that has torn our family apart with grief and anger. Our Great-Great Uncle Phillipe Poisson was thought to have run off with a tribe of naked native Antarcticans and lived with them until his death in the late 1800's. Now we can rest easier knowing he died a hero and not a cheat! It is comforting knowing that he is preserved on ice in the form of ice borer post digestion.

Since the nasty little critters at least leave their penguin victims' webbed feet, beak, and a few feathers lying there in a neat pile, perhaps Uncle Phillipe's snow shoes, false teeth, and toupee can still be recovered.

Please have Aprile Pazzo be on the look out for these frozen relics. (Perhaps you can have an article about her humanitarian find in your next APRILE issue!)

David M. Chisholm, Sr.
Houston, Texas

Dr. Aprile Pazzo is to be congratulated on her great contribution to modern science (DISCOVER, April 1995) with her new discovery of the Antarctic Ice Borers. She did a skillful job of research and is to be commended for the skill with which she has presented this to DISCOVER readers. However, in the matter of the disappearance of Phillipe Poisson, in 1837, it occurs to us that readers would like to have some more information about a scientists whose fame, in his day, lay both in his field work and his eccentric way of life.

Poisson was one of the great ichthyologists of the nineteenth century who first came to the attention of the international scientific community for his discovery of the Giant Penguins of Ton Gue Incheek Island, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. It was actually a singular part of his eccentricity that contributed to this great discovery. A gentleman of the old school, Poisson always, even when the temperature was thirty below, dressed formally for dinner. In his camp, for dinner, white shirt, black dinner jacket and trousers with a bow tie were a must. One night, as he was sitting down to dinner, two Giant Penguins approached his tent and stood outside, watching him through the open flaps. Poisson reached for his notebook and within seconds a new species had been added to the world of science. The reason that the Giants approached him when they saw him and what Dr. Pazzo failed to mention? Poisson was not, as she states, 5 foot 6. He was 3 foot 6, a dwarf, and the Giants probably thought that he was one of them. Poisson, because of his size, suffered from an incurable shyness, which is why he spent years in the Antarctic, alone. Now, after nearly a century and a half, scientists feel that Dr. Pazzo may well be right, that it was the Ice Borers that got him in the end, particularly if they spotted him and attacked, mistaking him for a Giant, when he was dressed for dinner.

Peter C. Byrne, FRGS Executive Director
The International Wildlife Conservation Society, Inc.
Mount Hood, Oregon


I enjoyed the letters in your June issue in response to the Hotheaded Ice Borers. I was particularly interested in the problems which Mr. William Peters expressed concerning the slugs devouring the spotted owls there.

Louisiana used to be plagued with the same species of slugs as the Northwest now has. As you know, the "Cajuns" (corruption of the word Acadians) are noted for their fine cuisine and exotic fare. Cajuns have long considered these gastropods to be a delicacy, particularly the large delectable variety prevalent in Louisiana. Originally, Cajuns merely exterminated these slugs as pests who preyed on spotted owls.This was done by ringing trees where the spotted owls roosted with Alka-Selzters, and when the slugs raced across the tablets, the carbon-dioxide gas generated by the interaction of the slime and the Alka-Seltzer would gas them to death. The gassed slugs were gathered, and disposed of. After Justan Boudreaux published his first slug recipe for Blackened Slug, a large slug-trapping industry developed in Louisiana. Next followed complete slug recipe books, dealing with everything from mock raw oysters (raw slugs) to slugs cooked in their own slime to "Faux French Fries " and even "slug-sickles." The latest craze is to sprinkle flavored gelatin around the Owl trees. When the slug races over the gelatin, he gets trapped, and all attempts to free himself are for naught, as he merely moistens more gelatin. These gelatin nodules congeal and are then harvested and sold in stores as "Self-Wiggling Jell-O."

Alas, these slugs are now on the endangered species list here in Louisiana. Perhaps the people in Washington State would be interested in a trade agreement, exporting slugs to Louisiana, to feed this thriving industry. Perhaps we could exchange some of our spotted owl surplus for them. Spotted owls have gotten so plentiful here in Louisiana that we are getting tired of eating spotted owl, either in Gumbo, fried, on a stick, or any other way. (Barbecued spotted owl tastes very much like Whooping Crane, and is often passed off to tourists as such.)

David J. Doskey
Marrero, La.

P.S. Keep up the good work! Life is too short to be taken seriously all the time.


I found Ms. Pazzo's article on the "hotheaded naked ice borers" nearly as fascinating as my own studies of the "southeastern crested red-necked booby" (Ignoramus Appalachius). The male of the species is identified by its distinctive beer hat, Harley Davidson tee-shirt, protruding beer gut, dirty blue jeans, and cowboy boots. The female of the species is identified by its 2 foot tall blonde or red crest, cut-off tee-shirt with bra straps provocatively displayed, cut-off blue jean shorts, and bare feet. I hope to publish my findings of the social interactions and mating habits of these fascinating creatures in the near future (if the noted sociologist Jeff Foxworthy doesn't beat me to the punch).

Peter P. Nomikos
Fountain Inn, SC

Your April 1 story about the hotheaded naked ice borers omitted the most remarkable discovery of all:

As you know, recent reports have suggested that buried volcanoes explain unusual rates of melting underneath some Antarctic glaciers. These rapidly-moving glaciers protect Antarctic ice from erosion by ocean waters, which otherwise would raise worldwide sea levels by some 50 feet. However, it now turns out that the melting is caused not by volcanoes but by huge colonies of hotheaded ice borers deep under the ice.

Thus only these strange creatures stand between us and global catastrophe!

Prof. Imon Tuyu
c/o Mary M. Cleveland
New York, NY

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