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Called by some researchers “glacial mice,” they are described as a kind of pillow with a soft, moist consistency that provides “key habitat” for invertebrates.

The presence of strange moss balls in glacial ecosystems has attracted the attention of the scientific community, which for decades has been trying to understand their origin and how they coexist between the low temperatures and the extreme conditions of that environment. Recently, a group of American scientists has revealed new information about these particular formations, which have turned out to be tiny ecosystems for microbial life and important components of biological activity in glaciers.

In a study published in the journal Polar Biology, these experts analyzed those balls on an Alaska glacier (USA) and found that can persist for years and are able to move —Like the famous tumbleweeds from the western movies — in a coordinated way and as if it were a herd. “All this grouping moves at approximately the same speed and in the same directions,” says one of its authors, Timothy Bartholomaus.

Bartholomaus and his team tagged 30 of those formations on the Root Glacier and tracked their movement for 54 days in 2009. In the following three years, they returned and found that this moss it was moving “relatively fast”, at a rate of one centimeter per day. They also demonstrated that many of them, the most mature, could have an average life of more than six years.

These balls have been called by some researchers “glacial mice”, being described as a kind of pillows of soft and moist consistency, made up of different species of moss. “They really do look like little mammals, little mice or squirrels or rats or something that runs down the glacier, although obviously they run in very slow motion“Says biologist Sophie Gilbert, co-author of the paper.

So far it is known that these clusters can develop from impurities on ice surfaces and provide a “key habitat” for invertebrates. They are considered a “relatively rare biological phenomenon” seen not only in Alaska, but also in Iceland, Norway and South America, although they do not grow on any glacier and apparently only do so under certain conditions.

The team could not explain the direction of movement pattern, which they believed was the product of the melting of the ice where they grow or of the wind currents or because of following the sunlight. “The explanation is probably somewhere in the physics of energy and heat around the glacier’s surface, but we haven’t gotten there yet,” says Ruth Mottram, a scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute.

Either way, the long life span of moss balls reiterates their importance as “relatively stable” ecological unit in glaciers, which are still seen as barren territories, and could explain their colonization by some invertebrates, which include simple worms and water bears, which have been detected inside.

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