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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Worms Commentary

Air Date: Week of

Worms are of more than passing interest to Commentator Ruth Page, who thinks about such things at her home in Burlington, Vermont.


CURWOOD: Worms are also of more than passing interest to commentator Ruth Page, who thinks about such things at her home in Burlington, Vermont.

PAGE: Crushed - that's what I am, crushed. When I talk to folks interested in learning what's in the earth under our feet, I always enjoy the part about earthworms. Sometimes I mention that the largest of these wonderfully useful creatures lives in Australia and can be ten feet long That so-called fact came from otherwise reliable books, but I now know it was sheer rumor. No one has done a systematic investigation. I learned recently from The Wall Street Journal it's likely the famous worms don't grow past three feet. Where'd that ten foot rumor arise? Possibly natural exaggeration by people who'd seen these staggeringly long worms and didn't run home for the tape measure. Then a careful researcher got into the act and insisted on precision. Well, three feet's pretty good. We're still impressed.

I've been an earthworm agent for years. After learning details of their long lives as tillers of the earth and producers of worm casts, the perfect plant-root food, I became a notable worm protector. I have an able assistant in a granddaughter who, at the age of 7, has probably racked up a hundred or more earthworm rescues. When she saw that I always saved earthworms dug up by mistake when setting out garden plants, she became an enthusiastic helper and now seriously impairs her parents' efficiency in turning the earth in their garden. Elizabeth is expert at gently moving a handsome worm to a safe spot and making sure it has moist earth over it so that the skin through which it breathes won't dry out. But the poor giant Gipsland earthworm of Australia needs an army of Elizabeths. People have visited Caranberra where the worms live just to see the creatures. The worms were thought to be common throughout a large territory - another rumor. A scientist has revealed that the worms don't inhabit a quarter of a million acres, as previously thought. They can only survive within a hundred feet of so of a water source, and most live inside stream banks, widely scattered. Homes are encroaching on the worms' area, and the wastewater and sewage from septic tanks gets into their burrows and kills them.

It's now known that the giant worm is quite fragile. It can live perhaps as long as 30 years in undisturbed areas, but those are rare on today's earth. The worm was unlucky enough to be discovered by humans.

Inevitable, I guess. Any worm that's three feet long and makes loud gurgling and sucking sounds as it chomps its way through the moist earth is bound to be noticed, even by passers-by only out for a good time. The minute people hear of any natural oddity, they want to see it and kill it and take it home to impress their friends. And then it's goodbye, earthworm.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Ruth Page comes to us from Vermont Public Radio.



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