How the Worm Turns

Birds have all the luck.  New or rare species get discovered and written up in scientific journals and celebrated for their curved bills or their salmon-colored feathers or their unusual techniques for extracting seeds from pine cones.  When the ivory-billed woodpecker was spotted in Arkansas after fifty years in hiding, the bird became an overnight celebrity. Just this spring, scientists announced a new species of crossbill finch in southern Idaho to much fanfare, and last year a team of scientists declared that they’d encountered a treasure trove of new species in a remote area in New Guinea. 

Among them was a rare type of bowerbird, a creature known for building elaborate structures for its mate, complete with walkways and decorations made from berries, shells, and shiny coins.  Many of the newly-discovered birds, mammals, and amphibians in this area had never seen humans; the scientists found that sometimes they could simply walk over and pick the animals up.  Discovering new species?  No problem.  Just stroll into a jungle and get one.


But earthworm taxonomists don’t have it so easy. One has to dig for earthworms, and despite the fact that they are blind and deaf, worms are remarkably good at evading the probes and shovels of nosy scientists.  There’s also the problem of knowing where to dig.  An ornithologist can simply meander through a forest and look up; an oligochaetologist must keep an ear to the ground, so to speak, and try to divine the ideal earthworm habitat.

In spite of these difficulties, new earthworm species do turn up.  Dr. Sam James, research associate at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, has named about eighty new worm species in the last twenty years.  These discoveries don’t garner the same level of attention that a new bird might—after all, a worm does little more than slither through the mud to attract a mate, and that just doesn’t make for good television—but they are important nonetheless.  Earthworms are bellwether creatures; when they disappear, it probably means that vital habitat has been lost, too.

That’s why I’m so encouraged by the recent rediscovery of earthworms that had been classified as extinct.  On a recent trip to Brazil, Dr. James found Fimoscolex sporadochaetus, a fairly ordinary-looking pinkish-grey worm whose demise had been greatly exaggerated.  In fact, it had simply gone underground in 1969 and hadn’t resurfaced in the presence of an earthworm scientist since.

“Our position on these extinctions,” James said, “is that they are more likely to be off the radar than off the planet.”  Buoyed by this realization, James hopes to go hunting for Rhinodrilus fafner, which measures an impressive six feet in length but is equally reluctant to slither up to a taxonomist.

That’s not all.  A sighting last year in Washington of the giant white Palouse earthworm Driloleirus americanus, which stretches to three feet long and smells of lilies, sent shock waves through the earthworm community.  If the Great White Worm was back after nearly twenty years in hiding, what else might still be out there?

Dr. James had been watching the destruction of rare earthworm habitats with dismay.  If their forests and swamps disappear, he once told me, the worms may vanish, too.  “On the other hand,” he said after the sighting of the Palouse worm, “who knows?  One of these creatures could show up in the corner of a soccer field.  Stranger things have happened.”

So on this Earth Day, I’m encouraged by the idea that there are still some mysteries left in the world. The lonely and obscure earthworm scientist may be more in touch with the unknown than an astronomer.  After all, no telescope can penetrate the deep reaches of the earth, and there is no reason to believe that an earthworm is extinct just because it avoids human contact.  In fact, this may be further proof of Charles Darwin’s assertion that earthworms possess some intelligence.

Unlike those flamboyant bowerbirds, a worm might simply decide that it is better off without us, and retire from public life.  That’s a sensible decision. I wish it well.


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