A crawling mass of insect larvae near a Denali lodge begs the question, “Am I hallucinating?”

A Camp Denali staff member spotted this column of midge snakeworm larvae on July 8. (Photos courtesy of Jenna Hamm)

Elaina O’Brien ran back to the staff quarters on a busy morning at the Camp Denali lodge last Friday to retrieve the radio she had forgotten in her cabin.

She looked down the paved path and what she saw made her think, “Am I hallucinating? Did I have some kind of psychedelic mushroom for breakfast? What. East. This?”

Was it a slug? A desiccated animal body?

“But that was right on the staff track!” she says. “And I looked and I was like, ‘Oh my God, am I seeing this for real? Like, it’s just a million bugs, herded by these other bugs, into this slimy trail.

O’Brien is the housekeeping and service coordinator at the lodge, which is in the Kantishna area at Mile 89 of the highway through Denali National Park and Preserve.

It turned out that she was looking at a new species of fly type, the name of which has not yet been named called midge snake worm. In At that time, they were traveling together as larvae in a “rare phenomenon,” said Derek Sikes, curator of insects and professor of entomology at the University of Alaska Museum of the North and the University of Washington. Alaska Fairbanks.

Hundreds of larvae, each nearly a centimeter long, form the creeping column. Columns of larvae can stretch up to 2 or 3 feet, and they can only congregate in this formation for a few hours, Sikes said.

Sikes has been studying these Alaskan insects ever since a docent from the Museum of the North brought in a photo of the larvae and some specimens in 2007.

“It was completely ‘X Files’ to me – I had never heard of or seen this phenomenon before,” he said.

And he wasn’t the only one. Despite the formation’s visibility, longtime naturalists hadn’t seen it in the state either, Sikes said.

Since then, midge snake worms in this columnar formation have been reported near Fairbanks, Katmai National Park and Preserve, and Kenai Fjords National Park. But the sighting in the Denali National Park area was a first, Sikes said.

Hundreds of larvae, each nearly a centimeter long, form a creeping column. Photographed July 13, 2007. (Photo by Derek Sikes/University of Alaska Museum of the North)

He then bred some of the larvae into adult flies, which allowed him to determine what type of flies they were. By examining their DNA and studying their anatomy years later, Sikes determined that these snake worms were a new species, distinct from their closest relatives in Europe – which are also known to move in a similar mass procession.

“Some people find it visually repugnant because it looks a bit odd, but it’s not harmful to people,” Sikes said. “These things are not a problem for anyone. They are not invasive. There is nothing to fear with them.

It’s not yet known why there were no sightings of these snake-like formations in Alaska before 2007, Sikes said. It’s likely someone would have reported it, but there’s no evidence of it, he said.

But even why insects do this is a mystery.

“No one really knows exactly why they migrate in such large numbers together and also why they take on this particular long columnar shape,” Sikes said.

There are a few ideas as to why they travel like this, Sikes said. It may be that since the larvae tend to live in moist, dark and cool areas, they try to stay closer to each other on a sun-exposed road or trail in order to lose less moisture.

Or, Sikes said, they might travel this way because it makes them look like a larger animal.

“It’s just a fascinating piece of nature that most people have never experienced or seen before,” Sikes said. “Even for most entomologists, it’s a really rare phenomenon.”

Sikes and his colleagues plan later this year to publish their research on the insect and name the new species.

At the lodge on Friday, O’Brien said she “walked over” to look at the snake worms and realized other people needed to see. She ran to the staff room and urged the guides to come take a look. The group watched the bugs leave the path.

And then, after materializing, the larval line quickly disappeared without a trace.

“When we went back a few hours later, there wasn’t even, like, a trail of slimy slugs or any, like, bits and pieces left behind,” O’Brien said.

This story was originally published by the Anchorage Daily News and is republished here with permission.