Great White earthworms bagged and tagged

Live specimens of the rare Great White Palouse earthworm have been found, great for Northwest science, but a let-down for The New York Times.
Crosscut archive image.

Great White Worm adult specimen found, alive, on Paradise Ridge, Idaho, in April 2010

Live specimens of the rare Great White Palouse earthworm have been found, great for Northwest science, but a let-down for The New York Times.

Big news is the recent discovery of live, whole specimens of the Great White Palouse earthworm, announced this week by researchers at the University of Idaho.

The rarely found native worm is legendary and elusive, and highlights that much is yet unknown both about native species of Pacific Northwest worms, and how they have shaped the soil. Most worms in your garden are "invasive" species.

According to a university press release: "Researchers believe that introduced earthworms and other animals, plants, and manmade changes including farming and community establishment and development have all influenced native worms. Little scientific information also exists about how common native worms, including the giant Palouse earthworm, were before settlement." Learning more can teach us a great deal about the ecology of our soils.

The weird spin in a New York Times story almost turned the discovery into a disappointment: "Researchers Find Rare Giant Worm Doesn'ꀙt Live Up to Its Billing." The new worms, the paper reported, were neither white nor giant, but rather translucent and less than a foot long (one Palouse giant was said to have been three feet long). Nor did they support previous observations that the worms spit and smell like lilies.

But there is still much to learn about the species. Its range is still undetermined, and thought to possibly extend beyond the fertile rolling hills of the Palouse region, including higher forested areas in Idaho and in the Cascades near Leavenworth. So it is not known where they live, how many there are, nor is much understood about their behavior. And then there's the issue of whiteness. It appears to vary. A previous, dead specimen recovered in 2005 was white. Worms found near Leavenworth are large and whiter than the recent Idaho specimens, though they have not yet been confirmed as whites, and could be a similar or related native species.

One important advance is the method of finding the worms. First, they were found whole; recent specimens have often been found dead or in pieces (nothing worse than finding half a rare Palouse giant on your shovel). researchers have targeted some of the last sections of native Palouse prairie remaining as likely hunting grounds. Says University of Idaho soil specialist Prof. Jodi Johnson-Maynard, "We are beginning to gain some understanding about where we are likely to find the giant Palouse earthworm, and how much we have to learn about them."

The two latest finds were by University of Idaho student Shan Xu, and research scientist Karl Umiker. The worms were found southeast of Moscow, Idaho on Paradise Ridge. The two were conducting soil research using an electroshocker, a device that draws worms toward the surface. Great Whites are believed to dig much deeper than other worms. Three worm cocoons were also recovered, and two have hatched and appear to be rapidly growing Great Whites, a rather extraordinary development for worms than have been such an enigma, rarely seen, hardly ever recovered alive. The find promises to be a great leap (or crawl) forward in Great White science.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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