Into the Wormhole

Environmentalists hope saving a rare giant earthworm could help save a prairie

| September 27, 2007

Fifteen feet below the windswept Palouse prairie of eastern Washington and western Idaho, a spitting, three-foot-long, white worm that smells like lilies is thought to live. The fate of the once common, native, giant Palouse earthworm (Driloleirus americanus) is today a mystery. Experts conjecture on its habits, its role within the ecosystem, and why it has been spotted only twice in the past 25 years, most recently in 2005. Meanwhile, environmentalists are rallying to the cause of this little-seen, little-understood worm, and hoping that by saving it, they can save the Northwestern prairie where it makes its home.

According to the Associated Press, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and three other environmental groups have filed a notice of intent to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming that the federal agency -- following a familiar pattern of foot-dragging on endangered species -- has missed legally mandated deadlines to respond to a petition filed to protect the worm in August 2006. (The US Fish and Wildlife Service tells the Associated Press that the year-old petition remains under review and the agency has yet to draw any conclusions on the matter.)

For their part, local academics are still trying to pinpoint why the worm has all but disappeared. 'It's very difficult to say whether it came from agriculture or [non-native] earthworms,' Jodi Johnson-Maynard, assistant professor of soil and water quality at the University of Idaho tells They're also trying to understand what exactly the worm means to the landscape. 'The overwhelming reality is that we know very little,' says James B. Johnson, who heads the department of plant, soil and entomological sciences at the University of Idaho and last saw one of the worms in 1986. 'There's no way to estimate its ecological value.'

Environmentalists argue, however, that protecting the worm is a much-needed step toward protecting the worm's habitat -- the native Palouse grasslands they say have been devastated by agriculture, pesticides, suburban development, and invasive species. According to the University of Idaho's Argonaut, less than 1 percent of the arid grassland remains untouched by development. 'Listing the giant Palouse earthworm,' says O. Lynne Nelson from Friends of the Clearwater, one of the groups planning the lawsuit, 'may be the only salvation for the Palouse prairie.'

Go there >> Suit is Filed to Protect Giant Palouse Worm

Go there, too >> Lawsuit to Seek Endangered Species Protection for a Three-Foot Long, Spitting Worm