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Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

Giant spitting worm not so giant--or prone to spitting--after all?

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giant Palouse earthwormFor the last few years, environmental groups have been calling for the protection of the giant Palouse earthworm (Driloleirus americanus), an incredibly rare species (seen only a few times in the past 110 years) that was said to be more than a meter long, smell like lilies and spit at its attackers.

But now scientists have, for the first time since the 1980s, found two live Palouse earthworms, and it looks like the legend doesn't live up to the hype.

On March 27, University of Idaho research support scientist Karl Umiker and graduate student Shan Xu unearthed what they identified as two Palouse earthworms—one adult and one juvenile. They used a pretty shocking method to find the annelids—they sent electricity into the ground, bringing the worms to the surface, a technique known as the octet method.

In order to compare the worms to existing specimens, the adult worm was killed and dissected—a pretty drastic choice for a species thought to be critically endangered.

The scientists found that the adult worm was just 23 to 25 centimeters (nine to 10 inches) long. It did not smell like lilies or spit at Umiker and Xu.

Umiker's supervisor, associate professor Jodi Johnson-Maynard, tells The New York Times that the stories of the earthworm's "giant" status may have originated with a boy who picked one up and spun it around until it stretched.

Johnson-Maynard also says there must be more Palouse earthworms, but they live so far below the ground that they are hard to find. Until more are located, the captured juvenile is sitting "in a cooler in soil with ice packs," awaiting further research.


Image: Giant Palouse earthworm by Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon/University of Idaho © 2005

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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