The Rise of the Lowly Worm

By Chris Mooney | April 19, 2011 8:57 am

This is a guest post by Beth Campbell, composed as part of the NSF “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Orono, ME, on April 14-15.

Why should you give a passing thought to the worm? After all, isn’t it just about the most plain, boring animal around? Generally… a small, slimy, pink cylinder without flashy appendages or coloration. Not really a ‘sexy’ representative of the animal kingdom. But what a resume – worms are the critical mass of workers keeping soil and marine sediments in a healthy state.

Earthworms and marine worms are engineers. Even with the most basic of nervous systems and stream-like torpedo forms, worms effectively change their habitats. ‘Bioturbation,’ people in the field call it. Mixing of soil and sediment by living things. Sounds basic, but without it, life for other living things on Earth would be very different.

Our lab studies a common marine worm – Clymenella torquata – or the bamboo worm. These worms ‘bioturbate’ the sediments of the oceans as they eat, defecate, move and build their homes. So what? Well, this sediment movement affects how fast material decomposes in the ocean and this affects whole food chains. (You know you love sharks and whales.)

I’m also trying to tease apart how these sorts of behaviors are altered by injury and changes in diet. If someone bites your head off, what if you could regrow it? Again, it may be surprising, but these inconspicuous animals pull it off automatically. But… it takes energy to do this, and in the meantime they rest and heal. And there are drastically compounded effects with repeated injury – which is likely the rule in nature, rather than the exception. And diet? Yes, early data suggests a noticeable effect on healing. Another reason to eat your veggies.

So don’t be so quick to judge. Sometimes in our haste we forget to appreciate that which is not obvious and showy. Even the lowly worm deserves respect.

In fact, this Earth Day, be green in a new way. In your busy day, think for a moment about the unsung heroes in the animal kingdom and … go out on a limb – bring up the topic in conversation with friends. Take the initial laughter, laugh along, and then keep the topic going a bit longer. Although worms may not yet be in vogue, you will be on the cutting edge of a new wave of appreciation for the ‘little guys’ that structure our world.

Comments (7)

  1. Chris Mooney

    Just wanted to add…this was one of the most successful posts from our breakout session that was focused on training scientists to blog. That’s why it is republished here. Hope you like it!

  2. How do we get you to do one of these workshops in the Cleveland area, Chris?

  3. Gaythia

    Great post! A new science communicator in the making.

    Also, spring is the perfect season to be thinking about the importance of worms and other forms of soil life. At least where I live, the robins are hopping about looking for them. So they are significant components of the web of life, and in vogue to some!

  4. Chris Mooney

    @2 well, is there an institution that would support it, so that we could get a significant number of scientists out?

  5. Well, the Cleveland area is home to dozens of universities, as well as other research institutions like the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. I work at Kent State, but I know people at Case Western and Akron that might also be interested. How many scientists usually attend? Like a dozen, 50, 100?

  6. Matt B.

    Lowly Worm was always my favorite character in Richard Scarry’s books.

  7. I had a stuffed felt Lowly the Worm. My mom made it. Thanks for happy memory, Beth, and for sharing your research in such an engaging way.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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