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

Lovely Earthworms!

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Sy Montgomery marvels at the slithering, ubiquitous earthworm.


NUNLEY: Whatever problems you have with your garden, let's hope you do have earthworms. Commentator Sy Montgomery has been considering the lowly creatures. She says that given everything they do for us it's not quite fair that the early bird always gets top billing over the worm.

MONTGOMERY: No less an expert than Darwin championed these humble creatures. He wrote a whole book about them and claimed, "It may be doubted whether there are any other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world." It's true. Without worms' tunnels to oxygenate the soil and their castings to enrich it, the planet would be cold, hard and sterile. But besides this, worms have many other amiable qualities which few of us suspect. For one, they're discriminating beasts. They're not just mush inside. They do have brains, and hearts with valves, and blood, and many of the organs we do. They also have organs we don't, including thousands of tiny chemical receptors all over their bodies.

Worms spend their days literally eating through the organic matter in the soil, but their meals aren't random. They avoid their own castings, and occasionally something special catches their fancy. They may drag fallen leaves, for instance, into their burrows for later snacking. Sometimes you'll even find a feather down there.

Worms are amazingly strong. Grab a hold of a fleeing worm and you'll see. Earthworms use small hairs called setae and 2 different kinds of muscles to move. They move real fast. They line their tunnels with slime and can slip down there like greased lightening. You can hardly keep up with them with a shovel. I know a researcher who hacked away at the earth for half an hour in a titanic race with a Puerto Rican species. The scientist eventually won and captured the 39-inch trophy worm, albeit in 3 pieces.

By the way, it's not true that cutting up a worm makes more worms. Most heads can grow new tails, but the tails can't grow new heads. Konrad Lorenz observed that birds seem to prefer eating the tail end of worms. Here again, the focus was on the wrong animal. Doubtless, this reflects the worm's preference instead. But few of us consider a worm's preference. Few of us consider worms at all. Here's a common animal that everyone knows, but what do we really know about them? Most of us can't even tell the head from the tail. I can fix that for you. the band of swollen tissue on the worm, the clitellum, is more towards the head.

One researcher says there's more than 100 species of American earthworms that nobody has even described. Digging in your garden, you may have had a brush with a creature at the very frontiers of human knowledge, a reminder of the mysteries literally under our feet.

NUNLEY: Sy Montgomery is the author of The Spell of the Tiger. She comes to us from member station WEVO in Concord, New Hampshire.



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