Meet the rare and mysterious Patagonian ice dragon that lives on rapidly disappearing glaciers

The new docuseries “Patagonia: Life on the Edge of the World” explores one of the wildest places on Earth. Catch the latest episode at 9 p.m. ET/PT Sunday on CNN.

CNN  — 

A mysterious tiny dragon lives among the ice of the Andes Mountains in South America – and if you blink, you might just miss it.

The Patagonian ice dragon is an insect just over half an inch (1.3 centimeters) long and it lives on glaciers.

The Southern Patagonian Ice Field may serve as an impressive reserve of fresh water, but the rivers of ice are a difficult place to live. The dragón de la Patagonia, a type of stonefly, has adapted to survive in this frozen land.

The dragon is what scientists call an extremophile, or an organism that can live in extreme environments.

This stonefly is the only true insect that lives in Patagonia’s ice field, and its entire life cycle takes place on the ice. There are two known species of ice dragon, Andiperla morenensis and Andiperla willinki, but there could be more waiting to be found.

That’s the extent of what scientists know, biologist Isaí Madríz said. Everything else is the basis of hypothesis or speculation.

But there are more questions than answers about the ice dragon.

Tiny but mighty

Time may be running out for the ice dragon. The diminutive insect is endangered because the ice sheet it calls home is rapidly melting due to global warming.

Madríz is dead set on learning everything he can about the dragon, and sharing that knowledge with others, to better understand a rare creature that learned how to survive in an icy, barren landscape millions of years ago.

Madríz, often called the “bug detective,” has researched Patagonia’s biodiversity for years. In addition to being the world’s expert on the primitive crane fly, he investigates poorly understood lineages of insects.

The ice dragons live their entire life cycle on glaciers.

During his regular expeditions to the ice field, Madríz began collecting observations of the ice dragon and sharing them with laboratories that study the species in Argentina and Chile.

“I’m facedown on the ice, inching along looking at the insects and following them,” he said. “It’s kind of like going back to when you’re a kid, looking at insects and just figuring out what they do.”

The bug detective

His sleuthing has paid off. So far, Madríz has been able to observe behaviors of these insects that can only be witnessed in the field.

He has seen ice dragon eggs up close – a rarity since young ice dragons have proven to be elusive.

“The amazing thing is, once you start looking into the eggs, it looks like a little tiny shrimp,” Madríz said. “You can see the entire organism already developed.”

By the time the female ice dragon lays the eggs, the baby insects are fully formed. Scientists don’t yet know how long they take to emerge from the eggs, but their invisible nature is now understood – it’s because young ice dragons are translucent. On the ice, they are impossible to see until they begin to grow and mature and their exoskeletons become darker.

Madríz also learned by accident that ice dragons can withstand another extreme.

In order to preserve and study specimens, scientists usually briefly boil them in water, which helps to maintain shape without the tissues collapsing.

Madríz dipped three ice dragons in boiling water for about 10 to 15 seconds and turned to do something else. When he returned, one of the ice dragons was crawling out of the dish.

“We’re going to find out that this species is a lot more interesting than what we thought about because you don’t go from freezing to boiling water and survive, with the exception of something like a tardigrade,” he said. Microscopic tardigrades have an ability to survive and even thrive in the most extreme environments.

Remaining questions

Madríz hopes that many answers about the ice dragon will be revealed within the next few years. He wants to uncover how these insects opted to make glaciers their homes, rather than water, and then adapted to a unique lifestyle.

Madríz and his fellow researchers are hard at work on uncovering the inner workings of the species, including how it survives in the ice field and what it eats.

There is currently speculation that the ice dragon’s blood contains glycerol, a natural antifreeze, but the amounts, and whether it keeps the insect’s blood from freezing, is unknown. Future research could tell the tale.

It’s possible that ice dragons feed on tiny algae on the ice. They may also eat other insects that live in nearby valleys and are blown over by wind, landing on the glaciers and dying. And ice dragons are known to feed on cryoconite, the fine powder on the ice made of microbes and other small particles. This windblown dust can land on glaciers and decrease their reflectivity, which can make it easier for them to melt.

“When you find the only (insect) that can live in that environment, then it has to have some impact on the environment,” Madríz said.

He wants to begin a captive breeding program in the next couple of years to help save this insect before its ecosystem disappears. Madríz hopes that awareness for this mysterious creature can make its conservation self-sustainable. Enlisting field guides to teach tourists about the ice dragons can also help to educate travelers who explore Patagonia’s disappearing glaciers.

Rather than seeking selfies on the ice, visitors just may come looking for the elusive ice dragon and walk away with an understanding of an incredibly unique ecosystem, Madríz said.

Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news on fascinating discoveries, scientific advancements and more.