Beneath Our Feet

This giant Palouse Earthworm was found on Paradise Ridge near Moscow, Idaho, on March 20, 2010. Photo by Karl Umiker of the University of Idaho. Courtesy of HistoryLink.org.

This Giant Palouse Earthworm was found on Paradise Ridge near Moscow, Idaho, on March 20, 2010. Photo by Karl Umiker of the University of Idaho. Courtesy of HistoryLink.org.

Soon after Washington State College opened at Pullman in 1892, the Washington State Agricultural Experiment Station kicked into gear under its auspices. Rennie Wilson Doane was appointed Assistant Zoologist. He began research on pests that were killing local sugar beets, gathering enough data that by 1900 he was able to publish a report identifying a new species of root lice, Pemphigus betae Doane, and he researched the use of large Atlantic oysters in the waters of Willapa Bay. His marriage in 1898 to Miss Elnora Cooper at McMinnville, Oregon, was front page news in the Pullman Herald.

Doane’s work kept him moving. As he followed country roads to farms and fields around Pullman, he began to notice what looked like the burrows of gigantic worms, sometimes fifteen to twenty feet down from the surface of hills sliced open by road cuts. Intrigued, he dug up several specimens of a huge earthworm, pickled them in alcohol and sent them to the nation’s leading earthworm expert, Frank Smith, a zoologist teaching at the University of Illinois. He assured Smith that the worms were abundant in the area.

While Smith admitted that Doane’s specimens seemed incomplete, he believed there was enough physical evidence to conclude that the giant earthworms represented a previously undiscovered creature, a giant earthworm. In a paper published in March of 1897 in The American Naturalist,  Smith announced the discovery of the worm he named Megascolides americanus. The name was meant to establish a somewhat sketchy connection between the Giant Palouse Earthworm and some truly immense worms from Australia.

It’s right about here that I begin to appreciate Science, because so much of what the scientists of that age declared established fact proved to be incorrect. As years go by, and more and more research takes place, Science adjusts to bring our understanding of the planet closer to reality.

Doane promised to go on some more collecting expeditions, but Smith never received any more samples from him. Instead, popular legends about the Giant Palouse Earthworm began to seep into the scientific realm: this worm will spit at you, it smells like a lily, it can grow to three feet in length, and so forth. Even today, if you try to get information about the Giant Palouse Earthworm off internet, you are solemnly given these statements as fact.

As Doane worked on the problems of local sugar beet growers and more distant oyster beds in Willapa Bay, farmers in the Palouse plowed under more and more of the native vegetation and planted more and more wheat. The natural habitat of the Giant Palouse Earthworm nearly vanished, supplanted by the beautiful rolling wheat fields you see today in the Palouse. Doane never found those additional samples, and sightings of the Giant Palouse Earthworm became more and more rare. The last scholarly study of the worm was published in the 1930s. After that, the worm just seemed to vanish. It earned nicknames like “Moby Worm,” and the “spineless subterranean Sasquatch.”

Smith avoided writing anything more about the Giant Palouse Earthworm for a very long time, until the late 1930s. Then he cited other gigantic earthworms that he placed in the same family, two from the coast of Oregon, worms that are now commonly considered extinct. He based his final writings on the subject on samples collected in 1931, the last time anybody collected one until late in the century.

For nearly fifty years the worm disappeared. Then, in the 1980s, sightings began to occur. Bear in mind that this was the era when crop circles and UFOs were also becoming common, so unconfirmed sightings might be suspect. James Johnson of the University of Idaho discovered two living samples in second-growth forest near Moscow in the late 1980s, but these were the last living samples reported in the 20th century. By that time, serious biologists were proclaiming the Giant Palouse Earthworm extinct.

In spite of the lack of direct study of the worm, scientists in the early 1990s decided to correct Frank Smith’s Australian mistake by renaming the species Driloleirus americanus, a reference to the legendary lily-like scent of a captive Giant Palouse Earthworm. Perhaps it was more scientifically accurate to finally divorce this species from the Australian worm, but the new name was hardly based on scientific fact–only on legend. The lily-like scent had been detected in a sample of one of the Oregon coast giant earthworms, but there was no substantiated evidence of the odor coming from the Giant Palouse Earthworm.

Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon, a University of Idaho grad student, was digging a hole near Albion, Washington, for a study on earthworms in 2005. As she worked, she noticed a whitish worm that had been cut in half by her own shovel work, and she bagged the specimen. For the first time in around eighteen years, a Giant Palouse Earthworm had been collected. The study she published in 2006 pointed out the great disparity in the large numbers of two varieties of invasive earthworms as compared to the sparsity of the native earthworm. She found only the one sample of a giant earthworm, shovel-killed by accident, in one of the five undisturbed sections of land she was able to study. In another paper she published in 2008, she blamed land use changes, habitat fragmentation, and competition from invasive earthworms for the near extinction of the Giant Palouse Earthworm.

In 2006 a coalition of environmental defense groups petitioned the government to list Driloleirus americanus as a threatened or endangered species pursuant to the Endangered Species Act. Two months later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded that they didn’t have enough funds to investigate the worm, but they promised to do so as soon as they could obtain the funds. A year later the coalition was threatening to bring suit against the government for failing to act on their petition within a year. The Fish and Wildlife Service quickly followed up with a finding that “the petition does not provide substantial scientific or commercial information to indicate that listing the giant Palouse earthworm may be warranted.”

The coalition was not satisfied, noting that the finding was typical of the Bush administration. They filed a new petition in 2009, obtaining a hearing before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in February of 2010.

The following month two new specimens of the Giant Palouse Earthworm were found, using electrical prods to force them out of the earth. The larger worm, measuring 10 to 12 inches long, was killed to allow the researchers to dissect it to confirm its identification as a specimen of the rare species. The younger and smaller worm was taken alive to the University of Idaho to provide DNA samples.

Scientists studying the new worms concluded that they don’t spit or hiss and they don’t smell like lilies, so the new scientific name is just as inaccurate as the old one was. What’s more, they don’t get nearly as big as people claimed they do. Soil scientist Jodi Johnson-Maynard was quoted as saying, “One of my colleagues suggested we rename it the ‘larger-than average Palouse earthworm.’”

In June the verdict from the Circuit Court of Appeals went against the coalition, supporting the Fish and Wildlife Service. But government researchers continued to consider the worm. They issued a declaration that further study was warranted.

By the end of July, however Fish and Wildlife made a final decision against declaring the worm threatened or endangered. In partnership with state and other governmental agencies, an intensive search for the worm in other locations was conducted in 2011 and 2012. Biologists conducting the search feel confident they have taken samples at a cluster of forested sites between Lake Chelan and Ellensburg.  They are awaiting DNA confirmation, but at this point they say that they aren’t sure if the Giant Palouse Earthworm is truly endangered, or just hard to find. So in the opinion of government scientists this worm is more dispersed than we thought, but hard to locate, so it’s been overlooked.

We expected to find this worm only in areas with similar soil structure to the Palouse country, but government biologists are pointing out that specimens have been recovered in a variety of soils, including shallow loam. With its resistance to drought, the Giant Palouse Earthworm might be lurking beneath the surface of all sorts of undisturbed natural habitats in the Northwest.

The State of Washington has listed the Giant Palouse Earthworm as a species of concern while field research continues. And so it stands, or should I say…burrows.

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One response to “Beneath Our Feet

  1. I’ve always enjoyed your posts, well written and informative, and generally on subjects that don’t get a lot of attention. Thanks!

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