College of Agricultural and Life Sciences continues research into the unique, native earthworm
The animal in the metal tray on the lab bench in the University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is one of the rarest soil-dwelling animals in captivity, a giant Palouse earthworm, one of perhaps a dozen living specimens available to scientists for study.
It is large for a North American earthworm, stretching nearly 14 inches as it explores its surroundings, moistened white filter paper.
More importantly, it is a native earthworm from the Pacific Northwest, a rarity in itself.
The earthworm is receiving an annual checkup of sorts. It was collected near Moscow by Latah County resident Cass Davis in 2015 near Paradise Ridge. The ridge and its native Palouse Prairie remnant is the modern center of the earthworm’s habitat in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.
For Chris Baugher, a University of Idaho soil science doctoral candidate who has spent four years studying the earthworm, the worm’s size and activity is a welcome sight.
“We try not to disturb them, but that means it is hard to know how they are doing,” Baugher said.
During the course of his work, he has collected a group of about a dozen native giant earthworms from the Palouse. About a dozen are kept alive in containers in a cooler in the college for further study.
Jodi Johnson-Maynard visited the lab recently to check in on the earthworm study. A soil scientist and earthworm expert, she serves as the college’s soil science division chair. In 2005, her graduate student Yaniria Sánchez-de León, who is now an associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico, discovered the first giant Palouse earthworm in nearly 20 years while sampling on a nearby Washington State University research site.
Previous to that, UI entomologist James B. “Ding” Johnson had discovered the last known specimens of the worm in 1988 while sampling insects on Moscow Mountain. It was a decade or more earlier that another earthworm expert had found a specimen. And before that, the scientific record is sparse at best from the first report of the giant Palouse earthworm near Pullman by a WSU professor in 1897.
Baugher’s work has focused on understanding the range of the earthworm across the interior Columbia Basin and developing DNA-based tools to identify it. Collections of specimens near Leavenworth, Washington, and elsewhere in the region and genetic analysis suggests that one species, Driloleirus americanus, occupies the area from the Cascades east to the Palouse.
Baugher and Johnson-Maynard summarized the research in a report in late 2015 to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has considered the worms for Endangered Species Act status in response to petitions from area residents. Federal officials ruled in 2011 that listing the giant Palouse earthworm was not warranted.
In June, Baugher presented his research to the Palouse Prairie Foundation, which has sought protection for the worm. Moscow radio station KRFP broadcast the presentation earlier this month and posted it online at its website, http://radiofreemoscow.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/HolidaySpecial-Mon-7-4-16EarthwormScienceBaugher.mp3.