Legendary Giant Earthworm Finally Appears, Disappoints Everybody

By Smriti Rao | April 29, 2010 4:58 pm

giant-palouse-earthwormIt’s an earthworm so mysterious, people compare it to the Loch Ness Monster. Rarely sighted since the 1980′s, the giant Palouse earthworm was said to grow almost three feet long, smell like lilies, and spit at predators. It was so elusive, that some even doubted its existence–but now, a team of conservationists from the University of Idaho has found several of these mysterious creatures in a prairie field.

But what a let down it was.

Contrary to popular claim, the earthworms did not smell like lilies or spit at their predators. They weren’t even particularly giant, causing lead researcher Jodi Johnson-Maynard to remark: “One of my colleagues suggested we rename it the ‘larger than average Palouse earthworm’” [The Telegraph].

The team started combing the prairie region between Idaho and Washington state last summer in search of the Palouse earthworms. It was researcher Karl Umiker who eventually struck gold–or in this case, worm. Umiker used a tool called an electroshocker, in which electricity is passed through a number of electrodes that are stuck in the soil. Umiker was “shocking” a fragment of unploughed prairie when two giant earthworms emerged from the soil–a juvenile and an  adult.

The Palouse worms were said be abundant in the 19th century, but farming of the prairie land reduced their numbers drastically. The worms were considered extinct until 2005, when Idaho graduate student Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon found a specimen near Albion, Wash. But that worm had been cut nearly in half as she was digging a hole [AP]. It’s not clear whether the worms retrieved last month were part of tiny population of remaining worms, or whether they’re considered rare simply because they live deep in the soil (down to 15 feet below the surface) and flee from the vibrations caused by digging scientists.

When they were extracted from the soil, both worms were about seven inches long. Says Johnson-Maynard: “But when we stretched it out and relaxed it, the adult earthworm got bigger…. It’s between 9 and 10 inches” [The New York Times]. That’s still a far cry from the myth of 3-foot-long Palouse worms. Johnson-Maynard says that legend may have arisen from reports of one truly giant specimen recovered many years ago. “Apparently some boy was swinging it in the air like a rope, and it stretched” [The New York Times].

Johnson-Maynard confirmed that the worms did not smell like lilies either, saying, “I have a fairly sensitive nose, and I just can’t smell the lily” [NPR]. The researchers have also seen no evidence of spitting.

While the adult was killed in order to confirm whether it was indeed a Palouse earthworm, researchers are excited to still have the juvenile alive and in one piece. For now, the captured juvenile is resting comfortably, Dr. Johnson-Maynard said, adding, “We have it in a cooler in soil with ice packs” [The New York Times].

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Discoblog: Worm Grunting Mystery Solved…by Darwin
Discoblog: New “Worm Charming” Champion Sets World Record

Image: University of Idaho

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
  • marissa alex izaiah giovanni

    We saw a earthworm and my cousin steped on it and now it’s dead.

  • Brian Too

    C’mon now, isn’t the destiny of the earthworm to disappoint everyone?

    Common insult: “You, you, *worm*”!

    Maybe fishermen, robins and gardeners are pleased with worms. Of course there will be an obscure specialty within Biology concerned with worms too. For most of the rest, not so much.

  • racheal

    how do we know they captured the right worm ? I’ll wait for DNA ! only there is non to compair . those mega- worms mat have sent out decoys.

  • sandeep

    Jesus.!!!….finally it has been done…i have been waiting to witness this for decades…this changes everything..

  • TimelordSupreme

    Meh. The slug-eyed seafarers of Deneptulon 88 fight foot fungus before breakfast that’s bigger.

  • James B.

    I was disappointed that the giant worms I found last December (2010) were not the legendary Palouse earthworm, but it turns out they are a previously undescribed species.

    Another of giant earthworm species of Driloleirus has been discovered in the coastal mountains of Oregon. It has been identified as a new, or at least not yet described species of Driloleirus, and DNA testing is pending. Three specimens have been found, with the longest being slightly more than twenty inches in length when crawling. They do spit a slightly fragrant liquid when disturbed.

  • LK

    Just a note, I have smelled their spit and it does smell like lilies and has other properties besides that could be documented but I will leave that particular to researchers who finally does get one to spit. They also emit a noise when accidentally jumped on when close to the surface, which is how I discovered their spit. If you want to dig around the Beavercreek area (off Decker Road) outside of Corvallis Oregon past most of the homes – out where the wild things are, you may find more although the area where I was has been clearcut since the worm spit on me.

  • Travis

    I just saw a what looked like a huge worm coming out of my grass (which is a bit long right now) it was hard to tell exactly because it is dark. I tried to pin it with a stick and grab it but it shot into the grass or under ground. Does anyone know what this could be? It was brown in color and fat almost like a slug but about had a worm like look. the length that I could see sticking out of the grass was about 10 inches. I was very surprised at how quickly it shot away when I touched it with the stick. My location is Bellingham WA beachfront. Is it possibly something that came from the bay? Anyway any help in explaining this would be greatly appreciated. I am extremely intrigued as I have lived in the area my whole life and have never seen anything like this.

  • ce

    does it bother someone else that they killed an endangered species?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mparkhur Matt Parkhur

    Okay, when I was a kid, living in Dallas, Oregon in the mid 80′s, I had an unusual encounter one day. I was playing in the back yard (and may have been using the hose quite a bit, not sure) and out of the ground comes this huge worm-like creature. Yes, I was young and much smaller than I am now, but even today, I can’t imaging this creature being any less than a foot and half long by 3 or 4 inches in width. It was pure white, and after handling it for some time, spit a horrible substance at me. This happened a long time ago, so I can’t remember the details of how it felt, smelt, etc, but it was bad.

    I was just looking through the net for similar creatures and thought I had found it in something called the ‘Giant Oregon Earthworm’, but after looking at images of this worm, I am certain that it was not what I saw, unless this was an albino, and an unusually large specimen. I am not looking for ‘fame’, or anything like that, just curious as to what it was after all these years.

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