New Great White Worm find in Oregon?

The expanding mystery of what lives under our feet in the Pacific Northwest gets "curiouser and curiouser."

Crosscut archive image.

The worms found recently in Oregon

The expanding mystery of what lives under our feet in the Pacific Northwest gets "curiouser and curiouser."

The search for the Great White Worms of the Palouse continues to produce results, often elsewhere (like near Leavenworth), and with the help of amateurs. The range of the Great Whites seems to be wider than expected, but also there may be similar species, some not yet described or fully understood by science.

To recap briefly, Great Whites are large, white or pale earthworms that were discovered in the late 19th century in the deep fertile soils of the Palouse country of southeastern Washington and adjacent Idaho. They were reportedly enormous, but only rarely have complete, live specimens been recovered for study. Whites or similar worms have been found in the hills of Idaho and even as far west as near the Cascade foothills. Large, pink earthworms of Great White scale (Big Pinks?) have also been found in Oregon.

Worm experts have acknowledged that much is not yet known about the native earthworms of the Pacific Northwest; the worm species in your gardens are non-natives. Learning more about Great Whites and kindred species is important, for one reason to resolve the debate over whether they are endangered.

As Great White awareness has spread, so have the number of interesting finds. I recently received an email and photograph from Jim Box of Dallas, Oregon. He sends of photo of two Great White-looking worms he found in December in the coastal mountains west of Salem. Here's his description of what happened Oregon:

"About six years ago during a deer hunt I saw a very unusual earthworm crawling along the side of a logging road. It was a foot long, and except for its beautiful pink head it was as white as a sheet of paper, and as thick as my finger. I considered taking it home to show others, but I didn't know anyone that might be interested, so I just let it go on its way undisturbed. It did make me curious and I began talking with friends and found that a number of them had seen large worms too. 

In time I read of the Palouse and other rare worms and decided I just had to find another of the big white worms I had seen before. Eventually, a couple of months ago I found some white worms with pink heads nearby, but they were smaller than the one I had been seeking, so I found a taxonomist willing to identify them for me. However, before I could get the white worms to him I also discovered these two giants, and was contacted by a second taxonomist. 

They both agreed to examine them, and perform DNA tests to learn more. I did not know this, but these gentlemen are actually quite competitive in their field, and deciding which would get to keep the worms was like splitting the baby. One in the picture is mature and the other is not, so it made more sense to keep them together for comparative study than to study them individually. That meant one taxonomist would be left out in a way. Luckily I found a third, so they both have worms for their studies."

Recently, some have questioned some of the Great White's legendary characteristics involving scent, spitting and size. But Box says his worms do emit a scented liquid when disturbed. Great Whites are said to "spit" and smell of lilly. The largest worm Box found was more than 20 inches in length when crawling.

There is much more to learn about such specimens. As Box says, "It turns out there is much we have not yet even discovered right in our own back yards."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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