Ben Lee of the University of Puget Sound and biologists Dan Shain and Paula Hartzell of Rutgers University went "worming" to Mount Rainier to find out more about ice worms.
Polar bears weather the cold with thick insulation and the ability to generate their own heat. Antarctic cod have blood laced with antifreeze. Ice worms don't have any of these defenses.
Instead, they have the remarkable ability to boost their cells' energy production when the temperature drops, Shain discovered. "It's equivalent to putting more gasoline in your tank," he said.
The worms also possess cell membranes and enzymes that function and stay flexible in temperatures where most animals' cellular processes creak to a halt.
The downside is extreme sensitivity to heat. At about 40 degrees F, the worms' membranes melt and their enzymes go haywire.