Saturday, June 07, 2008

Dr. Worm

A friend of mine found an exciting Endangered Ugly Thing that I knew I had to write about. Nothing fits so far outside the "charismatic megafauna" category as a giant earthworm.
Image from Palouse Prarie Foundation
Image from Palouse Prarie Foundation

While the Giant Palouse Earthworm (Driloleirus americanus) is not the largest earthworm1, a three foot long earthworm is nothing to sneeze at. Especially when it smells like flowers. Yes, while other animals thrash or bite or musk when handled, the Giant Earthworm emits a flowery scent. Smelling like lilies, in fact. No one knows why. It is also said to spit and run (slither?) away to avoid predators. One local conservationist has been oft quoted as saying, "This worm is the stuff that legends and fairy tales are made of." I want to know what fairy tales he's been reading.

The Palouse region from which the Earthworm derives its name is an area of eastern Washington and northern Idaho that was dominated by thick prairies. However, as of today, most of the area has been converted to agricultural use. While the Giant Earthworm never tends to directly contact surface vegetation--what with living in burrows 15 feet underground--it can still be affected by the change. This habitat loss, as well as competition with invasive worms2 has led to the Palouse Giant Earthworm's decline.

Like a few other animals I've written about, the Giant Palouse Earthworm went a long time without any sightings. Unlike, for example, the Long-beaked Echidna, they've recently found another specimen. In 2005, a grad student from the University of Idaho found one, and it is now preserved in formaldehyde for posterity. While the IUCN has listed it as vulnerable, the US Fish and Wildlife Service seems reluctant to federally list it. This, of course, has put conservationists in an uproar. But hey, if this kind of controversy can produce stories in multiple newspapers, teaching more people about new vulnerable animals, it can't be all bad.

1 That honor belongs to the Giant Gippsland Earthworm (Megascolides australis) from Australia, which can grow up to 9 feet.
2Most earthworms you come in contact with in North America are invasive. Now you know.


Anonymous said...

Myabe he was thinking of one of those fractured fairy tales from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show?

This one, perhaps:


High Power Rocketry said...

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