It may be the season for finding big white enigmas. In March, scientists spotted a long-rumored white killer whale in Alaska. Closer to home, researchers who have been pawing the sod in search of the Great White earthworm of the Palouse have come up with some surprising new clues about the elusive and possibly endangered creature. Two recent discoveries, one near Moscow, Idaho, and one near Leavenworth, Wash., suggest that the worms are not only out there, they may live farther afield than previously thought.
The Great White is not the only giant, native worm species in the Pacific Northwest. It also has a rare non-white relative in Oregon. Sightings of both types of giants are highly unusual, and recovering actual specimens even rarer. They are tougher to spot than a white orca because they live underground. Unfortunately, when they surface, they are usually damaged due to digging, plowing or earth removal. As a result, little is known about their habitat, range, and behavior, but they are known to grow up to three feet long.
The two recent finds are significant for different reasons. The Moscow worm was found in two small bits by soil researchers and cannot be positively identified, though evidence points to it being a Great White. It was found in what is widely regarded as the worm's native habitat, an undeveloped remnant of original Palouse prairie called Paradise Ridge. Such undisturbed habitat is scarce and it is thought that the extensive plowing, cultivation and development of the Palouse's rich soil have pushed the species to the brink. Environmental groups are seeking to protect the species.
The bigger surprise is the possibility that a Palouse giant might be found as far West as the Cascades town of Leavenworth. There is some previous evidence to suggest that Palouse worms could inhabit non-prairie terrain, however. Two were captured on the wooded slopes of Moscow Mountain after being found under moss by a couple of insect researchers in the late 1980s. That surprised researchers who previously expected to only find them in the rolling hills and rich soils of Palouse country. So it was known they could live in forest, like their Oregon relations. In a press release about the latest worm finds from the University of Idaho, there is also mention of a previous Great White find near Ellensburg, which puts them within striking distance of Leavenworth's Ponderosa pine country.
The property owner who found the Leavenworth white says he has seen others. Michael Westwind-Fender of Oregon, the Northwest's legendary leading worm expert, thinks it is likely a Palouse giant, but cannot say for sure because the specimen was too damaged.
Based on the recent finds, Prof. Jodi Johnson-Maynard, a soil ecologist and Great White seeker at the University of Idaho, plans to expand her search for the giant worms in the hope of finding specimens that can be positively identified. It's been like looking for a needle in the haystack. The good news, however, is that while the haystack just got bigger, there are apparently more needles in there than previously thought. That offers hope that more can be learned about the enigma beneath our feet.