When researchers finally obtained live specimens of the Palouse earthworm, the found it only reached 12 inches in adulthood. Image credit: Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon/University of Idaho
They said that it spit in self defense. They said it smelled like lilies when handled. They said it grew to be over three feet long. They said it was extinct. But a recent discovery of the Giant Palouse Earthworm has dispelled all of these myths—and is helping researchers and conservations gain basic knowledge about the elusive species that may be essential for its survival.
The worm has a translucent skin through which its organs and vascular system are visible. Image credit: AP Photo/Dean Hare
Though actual research was limited, the Palouse earthworm was described as "abundant" in the first reports from the 1800s. Four samples were collected by R.W. Doane of Washington State University and sent to Frank Smith, an early American Naturalist, who wrote the first report on the species in 1897. It is believed that the agricultural development that destroyed the silty dunes of the Palouse Prairie—the worm's native habitat—is believed to be responsible for the worm's decline.
In fact, until a dead specimen was found in 2005, the Palouse earthworm was widely believed to be extinct.
Though only five specimens were discovered in more than 30 years—and the IUCN lists the species as "vulnerable"—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has withheld endangered species status due to a lack of data.
This most recent discovery—of a live adult and juvenile—may go a long way towards filling that gap in knowledge. Already, it has helped dispel some of the long-held myths about the worm. It doesn't spit, nor smell like lilies. More significantly, it's not even that large—the adult only measured about 12 inches long. University of Idaho soil scientist Jodi Johnson-Maynard, who has been leading the search, commented:
One of my colleagues suggested we rename it the 'larger-than average Palouse earthworm.'
However, the most important thing, researchers explained, is that these specimens will allow them to conduct DNA and genetic testing so that a definitive taxonomy for the worm can finally be established.