Unraveling the Enigma of Alaska’s “Snake Worms”

Unraveling the Enigma of Alaska’s “Snake Worms”

Scientists have finally unraveled the mystery of Alaska’s peculiar “snake worms” with the discovery of a new species of fly. These newly identified fungus-eating flies have juvenile larvae that join together in groups, slithering like elongated, grey serpents. The snake worm mystery dates back over 16 years when a volunteer named Maggie Billington stumbled upon countless tiny, wormlike larvae traveling in a long line across a road in Ester, Alaska.

Having never encountered anything like this before, Billington documented the unusual phenomenon and brought photos and samples to Derek Sikes, the curator of insects at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Sikes and his colleagues painstakingly studied the larvae and published their findings in the journal Integrative Systematics: Stuttgart Contributions to Natural History.

The newly discovered species, dubbed Sciara serpens, belongs to the Sciaridae fly family, commonly known as fungus gnats due to their affinity for decaying organic matter. While many fly larvae are indistinguishable from one another, Sikes nurtured the larvae collected from a later snake worm sighting until they transformed into dark-winged flies. Surprisingly, these Alaskan fungus gnats bore a closer resemblance to a European gnat called Sciara mirabilis rather than their previously identified North American counterparts.

Is it peculiar for an Alaskan insect to resemble European counterparts more closely than its fellow North American species? Not quite. In Alaska, this pattern has been observed in other insect groups, such as grasshoppers and beetles. The shared features likely stem from the Pleistocene era when Alaska was connected to Europe and Asia via the Bering Land Bridge. This land bridge facilitated the migration of insects from eastern Siberia to Alaska while North America remained cut off by vast ice sheets.

Although the identification of the snake worm species represents a breakthrough, much remains to be understood about these fungus gnats and their unusual larval behaviors. Additional research is needed to explore the interactions between the snake worm larvae and the beetles that were observed alongside them. While it was originally speculated that the beetles might feed on the fly larvae, laboratory experiments led by Sikes showed that the beetles largely ignored the larvae.

The discovery of this new species sheds light on the fascinating and complex ecosystem of Alaska. As researchers continue to delve into the secrets of the snake worms, they uncover a world where the connections between continents and the intricacies of coexistence reveal surprises at every turn.

An FAQ section based on the main topics and information presented in the article:

Q: What are “snake worms” in Alaska?
A: Snake worms are peculiar worm-like larvae that slither together in groups, resembling elongated grey serpents. They were discovered in Alaska over 16 years ago.

Q: How were the snake worms discovered?
A: The discovery of snake worms occurred when a volunteer named Maggie Billington observed countless tiny, wormlike larvae traveling in a long line across a road in Ester, Alaska. She documented the phenomenon and brought photos and samples to Derek Sikes, the curator of insects at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

Q: What is the newly discovered species related to the snake worms?
A: The newly discovered species is a type of fly known as Sciara serpens. It belongs to the Sciaridae fly family, commonly known as fungus gnats because they are attracted to decaying organic matter.

Q: Where are the closest relatives of the newly discovered fly species?
A: Surprisingly, the Alaskan fly species closely resembles a European gnat called Sciara mirabilis, rather than its North American counterparts. This pattern of resemblance is observed in other insect groups in Alaska as well.

Q: How did the similarities between European and Alaskan insects come about?
A: The similarities between European and Alaskan insects are likely due to the time when Alaska was connected to Europe and Asia via the Bering Land Bridge during the Pleistocene era. Insects migrated from eastern Siberia to Alaska, and this shared history resulted in similar features.

Q: Is there more to learn about the snake worms and their behaviors?
A: Yes, much remains to be understood about the snake worms and their larval behaviors. Further research is needed to explore the interactions between the snake worm larvae and the beetles observed alongside them.

Q: What did laboratory experiments reveal about the relationship between the snake worm larvae and beetles?
A: The laboratory experiments led by Derek Sikes showed that the beetles largely ignored the snake worm larvae, contrary to the earlier speculation that the beetles might feed on the fly larvae.

Suggested related links:
University of Alaska Museum of the North
Science.org