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Search Continues Search For Elusive Giant Earthworms

July 12, 2009

Scientists and researchers are scouring the Palouse region from eastern Washington into the Idaho panhandle in hopes of finding more of the dwindling giant Palouse earthworms, The Associated Press reported.

The almost elusive worm is said to secrete a lily-like smell when handled, spit at predators, and live in burrows 15 feet deep. There have been only a handful of sightings.

Even though there has been little research done on the Palouse worm, conservationists are asking the Obama administration to protect it as an endangered species.

Jodi Johnson-Maynard, a University of Idaho professor who is leading the search for the worm, presented a glass tube containing the preserved remains of a fat, milky-white worm that one of her graduate students found in 2005″”the only confirmed example of the species.

Documented collections of the species, known locally as GPE, have occurred only in 1978, 1988, 1990 and 2005. The specimen found by Johnson-Maynard’s team is only about 6 inches long, well short of the 3 feet that early observers of the worms described in the late 1890s.

Johnson-Maynard’s researchers are working at a university research farm this summer using three different methods to try and find a living worm.

The simplest method involves just digging a hole and sifting the soil through a strainer, looking for any worms that can be studied, while the other methods are a little more involved.

One employs old-fashioned chemical warfare, pouring a liquid solution of vinegar and mustard onto the ground, irritating worms until they come to the surface. But the newest and latest method uses electricity to shock worms to the surface.

Joanna Blaszczak, a student at Cornell who is spending her summer working to find the worm alongside Shan Xu, a graduate student from Chengdu, China, and support scientist Karl Umiker, said the electro shocker is pretty cool.

The 3-foot-long metal rods are driven into the ground in small circles and then connected to batteries. They deliver up to 480 volts, meaning it could potentially fry a specimen and is dangerous to touch.

“I’m kind of bummed we haven’t seen anything yet,” Umiker said.

An 1897 article in The American Naturalist by Frank Smith said the GPE was described as common in the Palouse during that era. But massive agricultural development soon consumed nearly all of the unique Palouse Prairie and appeared to deal a fatal blow to the worm.

Before Idaho graduate student Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon stuck a shovel into the ground in 2005 to collect a soil sample and found the worm that now is in the tube in Johnson-Maynard’s office, the mythical earth-dwellers were mostly considered extinct.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was asked to protect the worm as an endangered species, citing as proof the lack of sightings. But the agency said there simply was not enough scientific information to merit a listing.

A second request filed with the Obama administration claims to have more information on the worm and would make the GPE the only worm protected as an endangered species.

However, the agency isn’t ready to comment on the petition, according to Doug Zimmer of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Seattle.

Zimmer said it was always good to see new information and good science on any species, but farmers are keeping a watchful eye on the research programs.

Dan Wood of the Washington State Farm Bureau said many farmers are concerned whether a listing is going to end up curtailing farming activities.

“I don’t know if people plan to stop all farming for the possibility of a worm being somewhere,” he said.

The giant Palouse earthworm is one of the few native species to North America, and has become quite popular with the public.

Johnson-Maynard said she has received calls from tourists who want to come to her office and be photographed with the specimen.

“A lot of people are curious about it,” she said.

Image Caption: 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

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