July 1, 2009

Groups Seek Federal Protection For Giant, Spitting Worm

Conservationists filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday seeking federal protection for the Palouse earthworm "” a worm that spits at its predators, The Associated Press reported.

Fans of the rare, sweet-smelling species requested the worm be protected as an endangered species.

Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said the giant Palouse earthworm is critically endangered and needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act to have any chance of survival.

Conservation groups such as Friends of the Clearwater, Palouse Prairie Foundation, Palouse Audubon and Palouse Group of Sierra Club were part of the petition.

Experts say the worm has only been spotted four reported times in the past 110 years, but supporters contend it is still present in the Palouse, a region of about 2 million acres of rolling wheat fields near the Idaho-Washington.

Steve Paulson with Friends of the Clearwater said much of the worm's habitat has been wiped out by decades of intense agriculture and urban sprawl. He said only about 2 percent of the Palouse prairie remains in a native state.

Greenwald said the white-colored worm"”which is the largest and longest-lived earthworm in North America"”can reach 3 feet in length and reportedly possesses a unique lily smell.

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected a similar petition from the groups during the Bush administration, claiming there was not enough scientific information about the species to prove it needed protection.

The groups hope the Obama administration will see things their way. And the latest petition includes new research the groups hope proves the worm is rare and threatened.

"We no longer have an administration adamantly opposed to protecting species," Greenwald said.

As of now, the agency has not seen the petition and cannot comment on its merits, according to Doug Zimmer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Seattle.

"It's always good to see new information and good science on any species," he added.

The giant Palouse earthworm was described as "very abundant" in the region in 1897, but sightings are rare. A University of Idaho researcher made the last confirmed sighting on May 27, 2005. Before that, the worm had not been seen since 1988.

The giant Palouse earthworm is one of the few native species of the Northwest, as most earthworms found in the area originated in Europe after arriving on plants or in soil shipped to the New World.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said there was too little information in the scientific record, which prevented the assessment of population trends, back when it previously rejected endangered species protection for the Palouse.

While the Palouse prairie has experienced a dramatic conversion of native habitat to agriculture, it was not clear if that hurt the worm, the agency said.

It also found no information on predation or transmission of pathogens by other earthworms to the giant Palouse earthworm.


Image 1: This photo shows the anterior, ventral view of the giant Palouse earthworm specimen collected by Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon. Courtesy Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon/University of Idaho © 2005

Image 2: The large, white worm at the top is the giant Palouse earthworm, Driloleirus americanus. Below is the southern worm or Aporrectodea trapezoides, which is considered an introduced species. Courtesy Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon/University of Idaho © 2005


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