Zoology

How Scientists Caught the Legendary Giant Palouse Earthworm



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Back in the 1800s a legend grew in the wilds of Idaho about the 'monster worm' that could choke a horse and fend off predators by spitting.

Old-timers back then referred to the creature as the spitting worm; those with a more scientific bent dubbed it the Giant Palouse worm (also known as the Washington giant worm).

In that rolling terrain called Palouse, a region spreading across nearly 2 million acres in southeastern Washington and central Idaho, the fabled Giant Palouse worm was said to roam in abundance.

Three feet long with an odor like lilies

19th Century encounters with the worm in the Palouse described it as 2 to 3 feet long. Large for a worm, but much smaller than its relative in the Australian Outback that can reach lengths of 10 feet.

Its scientific name is Driloleirus americanus, or "lily-like worm." Discovered in 1897, it was said it could can burrow down as deep as 15 feet.

Researcher Frank Smith published an article about the worm in 1897. The article, based primarily on four partial samples (sent to him by R. W. Doane of Washington State Univerity), and a handful of anecdotal tales was inconclusive and failed to actually prove the Palouse supported large groups of these worms.

The big white worm seemed to seemed to disappear almost 100 years ago. Many people thought they were a myth until a confirmed sighting of one in early 2005. Unfortunately, the worm escaped so no proof was forthcoming.

Then lightening struck twice. In May of 2005, Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon, a Puerto Rican researcher found and collected a 6-inch, immature Giant Palouse worm while doing research on carbon dynamics and earthworm populations.

Her find was later confirmed by William M. Fender-Westwind, a Northwest earthworm expert in Portland, Oregon.

A graduate student, James Johnson of the University of Idaho's Plant, Soil and Entomological Sciences Department was the last to see the worm prior to Sanchez-de Leon. During 1988, he and fellow graduate student Paul Johnson came upon several specimens while hiking the region near Moscow Mountain. His two samples were also forwarded to Fender-Westwind requesting confirmation of the species.

About the 2005 find, Johnson had said,"This is exciting ... It’s good news that this rare and interesting species is still with us."

Despite earlier accounts describing the worms emit a lily-like  odor, none of the three researchers recalled detecting it.

Then the worm disappeared again for another 5 years. Some began speculating again that the creature had died out.

Umikers' electroshocker

That all changed this year with the advent of an improvised piece of technology and a little detective work. The device proved the mammoth worm is no myth, nor is it extinct.

Karl Umiker, a support scientist at the University of Idaho, had a dream of finding the elusive Giant Palouse worm. He had mounted several research expeditions in the past but always came back empty-handed. One day he was hit with a brainstorm: electricity was the answer.

With his new tool, the electroshocker, he set out on his quest for the 'big one.'

This time he didn't return empty-handed.

Testing the soil in an unploughed region, Umiker gave the soil several large jolts. Afterward he dug around the area and found his dream specimen that now occupies its own shelf in a freezer at the University of Kansas. Three earthworm cocoons were also retrieved and suring the past several weeks have hatched.

A tiny giant

How big is the giant worm? Umiker can't say. But he estimates its about 8-inches long. A bit on the short side for a giant and one-third the size of past claims. Plus their worm didn't spit.

Jodi Johnson-Maynard who leads the research project asserted that, "There are reports of a meter long earthworm-3 feet long-but I haven't seen that." Then she rushed to add, "Now, possibly if one of these guys lives a long time ... but I think [the] most common might be a foot or a little bit less."
 
Worried farmers

The university entomologists are thrilled, but another group of people are worried: the farmers of the Palouse. The way they see it, if the government comes in and declares the worm an endangered species they could lose part of their farmlands—may their entire farm.

One farmer in Idaho, a member of the Farm Bureau, Craig Fleener worries about a loss of freedom. "Well, you have to do such and such, or you can't do such and such because we have to protect the giant Palouse earthworm."

Fleener believes humans should take priority over worms. He is positive the country is moving towards socialism and sees the debate over the worm as just another step by an all-powerful government.

He is not exaggerating his fears. During 2007 a local conservation group with strong political ties lobbied hard to get the worm on the endangered species list They lost.

Now with the discovery of the latest worm, the group is pressing hard again.

So while the university scientists celebrate the farmers worry about losing their livelihoods. Seems the Giant Palouse worm is giving them a Giant Palouse headache.

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