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
RELATED TAGS: UNUSUAL ORGANISMS

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 Discoverreaders than any other piece in the magazine's previous 15-year history. Mostreaders were amused and elaborated on the hoax. A few were chagrinedand 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 nakedice borers in your April issue [Breakthroughs]. What an extraordinarycreature! This would be a fantastic addition to our collection andwould, incidentally, increase our membership at a time when, like allnonprofit 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 todisplay the unusual that receives the most benefit. Therefore, inanticipation of being able to display these creatures, our board ofdirectors has already approved an outlay of $2 million for theconstruction of a special area to house them.

We would like to contact Aprile Pazzo as soon as possible to receivefrom her a full description of the animal's habitat, food, andrecreational needs. In particular, we are hoping that the hotheadednaked ice borer can exist on something other than penguin. We hadcontacted the California Academy of Sciences in hopes of elicitingtheir cooperation on donating some of the weaker members from theirpenguin exhibit, but they were cool on the subject, to say the least.

We are looking forward to hearing from you as soon as possible, andmeanwhile 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 AprilePazzo for restoring the reputation of my ancestor. I have in mypossession his diaries, recovered from his last known encampment. Hereis 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 donot deceive myself, I am the first person to observe them. Theirrepulsiveness 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 anunfortunate tendency of my forebear to abuse absinthe, especially bythe contemporary scholar Heinrich von Deresteapril.

Joan Walker
Indianapolis

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I am very surprised that DISCOVER would report the common ice mole ratas a scientific "breakthrough." It has been known for many years as theonly terrestrial mammal in Antarctica. We have a rather largecollection of these little mammals, known to us as Thermocephalusfrigidash kemphos. You have illustrated only the rather plain female inyour report. I am sure your readers would have been more interested inseeing 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. Thisanterior-posterior heat flux is important in preventing these ice molerats from sinking through the ice sheets and is unknown in any othermammal.

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 theCentral 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 herbalance. Everything happened so fast. She seemed to be sinking into theice, 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 sawa tiny, ugly, rodentlike head peer up briefly from the slush. I rushedover, but by then all that remained were the metal portions of theskates. Because I had had more than one drink at a friend's officeChristmas party, my mind could not accept what I had seen. I'm ashamedto admit that I brushed off this bizarre event. Like a typical NewYorker, I just didn't want to "get involved."

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

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


Aprile Pazzo's discovery was fascinating, although not whollyunexpected considering Pazzo's renown for fantastic and evenunbelievable research observations. Further, although Pazzo is known tobe on the cutting ice of science, in this instance it must be pointedout that her description of hotheaded ice borers is not new.

On April 1, 1950, Dr. Auguste Fou, while investigating thedisappearance of several peewee hockey players in Quebec, discovered acolony of hotheads living in the ice between the blue lines at thehockey rink at which the players were last seen. Unfortunately, Fou wasdenounced by the Quebec Junior Hockey League; his findings were nevermade public, nor was he heard from again. Pazzo's recent corroboration,therefore, is a welcome addition to the heretofore repressedinformation regarding a hot animal whose existence is now out of thedeep freeze.

Robert Wolkow
New York


At first I suspected the old LSD in the coffee trick. Then I noticedthat although it was March, I was reading your April issue. Yourpicture of the "ice borer" shows a Namibian mole rat with either anosteoma or a funny hat. Disregarding the evolutionary and geographicalquandaries such a creature would present, let me deal with theinevitable metabolic problem. I am certain that experts in this fieldeven now are calculating that in order to perform the thermal featsdescribed, the creature would have to eat penguins for 483 hours eachday. I have a solution: the beast has harnessed the secrets of coldfusion.

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 isthe perfect solution for removing unwanted ice and snow from mydriveway. It would also help me cull the flock of equally repulsive,unwanted bald-headed Chicago penguins that roost in my backyard everywinter.

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 hasbestowed on it dentition identical to that of the great white shark.Additionally, this mollusk is capable of oozing forward with hideousspeed, being clocked at 1.3 meters per hour during an attack.

Hunting in packs, the gastropods prefer to prey on the Northwestspotted owl, which the slugs stalk by smearing unspeakable slime trailson tree branches that the owl cannot then firmly grasp. As the slugshunker in ambush, the unsuspecting bird (order Strigiformes) lands andsuddenly finds itself upside-down and swinging like a pendulum from thebuttered perch, talons gripping in astonishment. As is well known, theowl cannot initiate flight from this position and is thus forced todangle stoically as the herd of maddened snails rushes in, fangsflinging spit.

It is the horror of every nature walker to come upon the disgustingaftermath of this plunder--two knobby owl legs suspended from a treelimb, a beak and feathers on the woodland floor, the forest serenityshattered 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 generationsof northern Minnesotans both for food and for leather. To fend offstarvation, early Swedish immigrants would locate a soft spot in theice, have a Norwegian immigrant sit on it, and, when he would abruptlyrise after a short interval, pick the featers off his backside. Lackinga handy Norwegian, less frugal hunters were known to substitute achicken on a rope. Properly prepared, feater meat tastes like well-agedbald 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 amoccasin. These were sold in clothing stores across the nation asbedroom slippers during the middle of this century and could berecognized by the small rodentlike face and ears on the toe area.

Overexploitation of this lucrative market and the nearly insatiablehunger 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 ofSwedish extraction who still consider lutefisk a delicacy.

G. James van Osdol
Nokomis, Fla.


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

Rick Campbell
Rochester, Mich.

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

Jenny Garner
The Dalles, Oreg.



Thank you so very much for solving an unsolved mystery that has torn ourfamily apart with grief and anger. Our Great-Great Uncle PhillipePoisson was thought to have run off wth a tribe of naked nativeAntarcticans 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 iscomforting knowing that he is preserved on ice in the form of ice borerpost 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 stillbe 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 yournext APRILE issue!)

David M. Chisholm, Sr.
Houston, Texas


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

Poisson was one of the great ichthyologists of the nineteenth centurywho first came to the attention of the international scientificcommunity for his discovery of the Giant Penguins of Ton Gue IncheekIsland, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. It was actually a singular part ofhis eccentricity that contributed to this great discovery. A gentlemanof the old school, Poisson always, even whent he temperature was thirtybelow, dressed formally for dinner. In his camp, for dinner, whiteshirt, black dinner jacket and trousers with a bow tie were a must. Onenight, as he was sitting down to dinner, two Giant Penguins approachedhis tent and stood outside, watching him through the open flaps.Poisson reached for his notebook and within seconds a new species hadbeen added to the world of science. The reason that the Giantsapproached 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, andthe Giants probably thought that he was one of them. Poisson, becauseof his size, suffered from an incurable shyness, which is why he spentyears 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 IceBorers that got him in the end, particularly if they spotted him andattacked, 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

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

Louisiana used to be plagued with the same species of slugs as theNorthwest now has. As you know, the "Cajuns" (corruption of the wordAcadians) are noted for their fine cuisine and exotic fare. Cajunshave long considered these gastropods to be a delicacy, particularlythe large delectable variety prevalent in Louisiana. Originally, Cajunsmerely exterminated these slugs as pests who preyed on spotted owls.This was done by ringing trees where the spotted owls roosted withAlka-Selzters, and whent he slugs raced across the tablets, thecarbon-dioxide gas generated by the interaction of the slime and theAlka-Seltzer would gas them to death. The gassed slugs were gathered,and disposed of. After Justan Boudreaux published his first slug recipefor Blackened Slug, a large slug-trapping industry developed inLouisiana. Next followed complete slug recipe books, dealing witheverything from mock raw oysters (raw slugs) to slugs cooked in theirown slime to "Faux French Fries " and even "slug-sickles." The latestcraze is to sprinkle flavored gelatin around the Owl trees. When theslug races over the gelatin, he gets trapped, and all attempts to freehimself are for naught, as he merely moistens more gelatin. Thesegelatin 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 inLouisiana. Perhaps the people in Washington State would be interestedin a trade agreement, exporting slugs to Louisiana, to feed thisthriving industry. Perhaps we could exchange some of our spotted owlsurplus for them. Spotted owls have gotten so plentiful here inLouisiana that we are getting tired of eating spotted owl, either inGumbo, fried, on a stick, or any other way. (Barbecued spotted owltastes very much like Whooping Crane, and is often passed off totourists as such.)

David J. Doskey
Marrero, La.

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


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

Peter P. Nomikos
Fountain Inn, SC


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

As you know, recent reports have suggested that buried volcanoes explain unusualrates of melting underneath some Antarctic glaciers. These rapidly-moving glaciersprotect Antarctic ice from erosion by ocean waters, which otherwise would raiseworldwide sea levels by some 50 feet. However, it now turns out that the meltingis caused not by volcanoes but by huge colonies of hotheaded ice borers deepuner 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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