I'm dreaming of a Great Whites Christmas

New clues in Washington's weirdest worm mystery.
Crosscut archive image.

The great white worm, nearly a foot in length.

New clues in Washington's weirdest worm mystery.

One of the world's most elusive worms, the Great White is an enigma that been chased by scientists all over Eastern Washington. Legendarily from the rich, deep-soiled rolling hills of the Palouse country, the Great Whites are a rarely sighted, even more rarely captured by investigating Ahabs.

But in recent years, evidence suggests that this possibly endangered and little-known species might have a greater range than previously known. A possible Great White was found near Leavenworth in the fall of 2007 on a forested hill in Chelan county's Ponderosa pine country, greatly expanding the worm's possible range. It could be a Great White, or a close relative. Additional specimens were found in the area in 2008.

The good news: more are popping up. Lee Matthews, who collected the specimen in '07, says that a good, hard rain this Thanksgiving seemed to draw out new worms, including the one photographed here, which he estimates to be nearly a foot in length.

Matthews reports: "I found four worms the morning after Thanksgiving in various spots. In each case they were crossing the gravel road and easy to spot. House guests had told me it had rained hard all night — that and mild temps must have brought the worms out. I wasn't prepared to collect worms, all close to 12" long, however, I had collected a smaller one a week earlier....I froze it and shipped it frozen [to worm expert Jodi Johnson-Maynard who]...said it arrived in good shape."

The worm is being prepped for DNA testing. There could be subspecies of Great Whites, or the worms could be relatives of a species of giant, non-white worms that live in Oregon. The Great Whites are said to smell of lillies, and can spit if disturbed. They are thought to burrow deep in the ground. One giant worm was measured at three feet, though only after it has been swung like a lariat by the finder. Live or complete specimens are extremely rare, as are even dead or damaged ones. The became known to science in the late 19th century, but decades can go by without a sighting. The new test results will be eagerly awaited.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.