The freeze tolerance and accumulation of cryoprotectants was investigated in three geographically different populations of the enchytraeid Enchytraeus albidus (Oligochaeta). E. albidus is widely distributed from the high Arctic to temperate Western Europe. Our results show that E. albidus is freeze tolerant, with freeze tolerance varying extensively between Greenlandic and European populations. Two populations from sub Arctic (Nuuk) and high Arctic Greenland (Zackenberg) survived freezing at -15 degrees C, whereas only 30% of a German population survived this temperature. When frozen, E. albidus responded by catabolising glycogen to glucose, which likely acted as a cryoprotectant. The average glucose concentrations were similar in the three populations when worms were frozen at -2 degrees C, approximately 50 microg glucose mg(-1) tissue dry weight (DW). At -14 degrees C the glucose concentrations increased to between 110 and 170 microg mg(-1) DW in worms from Greenland. The average glycogen content of worms from Zackenberg and Nuuk were about 300 microg mg(-1) DW, but only 230 microg mg(-1) DW in worms from Germany showing that not all glycogen was catabolised during the experiment. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry (NMR) was used to screen for other putative cryoprotectants. Proline, glutamine and alanine were up regulated in frozen worms at -2 degrees C but only in relatively small concentrations suggesting that they were of little significance for freeze survival. The present study confirms earlier reports that freeze tolerant enchytraeids, like other freeze tolerant oligochaete earthworms, accumulate high concentrations of glucose as a primary cryoprotectant.