By Amy Stewart, the author of “The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms” and, most recently, “Flower Confidential” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 22/04/07):
BIRDS have all the luck. New or rare species get discovered and written up in scientific journals and celebrated for their curved bills or their salmon-colored feathers or their unusual techniques for extracting seeds from pine cones.
When the ivory-billed woodpecker was reported to have been spotted in Arkansas after 50 years in hiding, the bird became an overnight celebrity. Just this spring, scientists announced a new species of crossbill finch in southern Idaho, and last year a team of scientists declared that they’d encountered a treasure trove of new and rare species in a remote area of New Guinea.
Among them was a never before photographed type of bowerbird, a creature known for building elaborate structures for its mate, complete with decorations made from berries, shells and shiny coins. Many of the newly discovered birds, mammals and amphibians in this area had never seen humans; the scientists found that sometimes they could simply walk over and pick the animals up. Discovering new species? No problem. Just stroll into a jungle and get one.
But earthworm taxonomists don’t have it so easy. One has to dig for earthworms, and even though they are blind and deaf, worms are remarkably good at evading the probes and shovels of nosy scientists. There’s also the problem of knowing where to dig. An ornithologist can simply meander through a forest and look up; an oligochaetologist must keep an ear to the ground, so to speak, and try to divine the ideal earthworm habitat.
In spite of these difficulties, new earthworm species do turn up. Dr. Sam James, a research associate at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, has named 80 new worm species in the last 20 years. These discoveries don’t garner the same level of attention that a new bird might — after all, a worm does little more than slither through the mud to attract a mate, and that just doesn’t make for good television — but they are important nonetheless. Earthworms are bellwether creatures; when they disappear, it probably means that vital habitat has been lost, too.
That’s why I’m so encouraged by the recent rediscovery of earthworms that had been classified as extinct. On a trip to Brazil, Dr. James found Fimoscolex sporadochaetus, a fairly ordinary-looking pinkish-gray worm whose demise had been greatly exaggerated. In fact, it had simply gone underground in 1969 and hadn’t resurfaced in the presence of an earthworm scientist since.
“Our position on these extinctions,” Dr. James said, “is that they are more likely to be off the radar than off the planet.” Buoyed by this realization, he hopes to go hunting for another elusive Brazilian worm, Rhinodrilus fafner, which measures an impressive six feet in length but is equally reluctant to slither up to a taxonomist.
That’s not all. A sighting in Washington State of the giant white Palouse earthworm Driloleirus americanus, which stretches to three feet long and smells of lilies, sent shock waves through the earthworm community last year. If the Great White Worm was back after nearly 20 years in hiding, what else might still be out there?
Dr. James has been watching the destruction of rare earthworm habitats with dismay. If their forests and swamps disappear, the worms may vanish, too. “On the other hand,” he said after the sighting of the Palouse worm, “who knows? One of these creatures could show up in the corner of a soccer field. Stranger things have happened.”
So on this Earth Day, I’m encouraged by the idea that there are still some mysteries left in the world. The lonely and obscure earthworm scientist may be more in touch with the unknown than an astronomer. After all, no telescope can penetrate the deep reaches of the earth, and there is no reason to believe that an earthworm is extinct just because it avoids human contact — it may just be further proof of Darwin’s assertion that earthworms possess some intelligence.
Unlike those flamboyant bowerbirds, a worm might simply decide that it is better off without us, and retire from public life. That’s a sensible decision. I wish it well.