Earthworm of the Apocalypse

Being a Bostonian in the Bay area is a weird experience. The summers are freezing, the winters mild and the spring and fall are the warmest part of the year. When leaving the house yesterday on a balmy morning, I shouted to my neighbor, “Wow, it’s summer already!”

“It’s spring!” he replied. I realized afterwards that what he meant to tell me was that “It’s not summer, dummy, summers are freezing. It’s spring and that means, hot.”

And so I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole: hot is cold, up is down and the nicest weather in all of the east bay starts on March 1st and ends just as school is getting out for the summer. So it’s with this knowledge that all Northern Californians plan their gardens, churning the soil, planting fresh herbs and seeking out those amazing little animals that enrich the soil: earthworms.

Yes, earthworms have always been known and loved as a gardener’s friend. They loosen the soil and transform nutrients into plant-usable forms. At least, that’s how I always knew them growing up. And then scientists had to go and ruin them. Yes, scientists can ruin even defenseless little worms. Thanks scientists, way to use the scientific method. What are they going to ruin next? Clown fish? Chipmunks?

Oh but, earthworms are dangerous, or at least some species are invasive in North America, brought over from other countries, hitch-hiking in soil and potted plants. When they arrive, they do obnoxious things like act as disease vectors for plant pathogens and chow down on the debris on forest floors, wrecking the habitat for animals that depend on leaf cover for their livelihoods (1). Jerks.

But now, researchers just had to go and make it worse. Because the activity that gardeners love so much — the chomping, the loosening, the breaking up the soil – is also bad for climate change. How? Well, breaking up soil makes it more accessible for microbes to munch on it and fart out a bunch of greenhouse gases (2). This makes for a more dynamic soil community, and no doubt often better for the plants, because it makes the nutrients available to them as well, but if we are calculating greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not so awesome.

I know some of you are thinking, “Great, I don’t need to stop driving my SUV, I can just off the earthworms! Problem solved.” To which I say: How would you find all the earthworms, and how would you kill them? Would you lure them with your sexy earthworm dance? Let’s be real people.

No, the purpose of this kind of research is to help scientists understand greenhouse gas emissions from natural systems, and make complete “carbon budgets” to know just how bad our position really is. This just adds one more piece to the puzzle, which then goes into a model, which then gets built into policy, which then maybe someday will kindly ask you, possibly, maybe could you consider for like one day, possibly not drive your SUV, please? Maybe?

Aren’t politicians useful?

So, as a gardener, should you be concerned? Should you frown at these hopeless little animals when they strand themselves on a toasty sidewalk after a heavy rain? The reality of earthworms is that they are everywhere, and wherever they aren’t, they will be soon. They may be slow, but they are motivated – and they are taking the country my storm, one slither at a time.

Further Reading:
(1) Exotic Earthworm Invasions in North America: Ecological and Policy Implications
(2) Greenhouse-gas emissions from soils increased by earthworms

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is the Policy & Programs Director at the National Center for Science Education. She wanted to remind her dear readers that nearly all of the research she cites in her blog is paid for by public funding, i.e. tax dollars. With the sequestration those federal dollars will slim down, research will be halted, and there will be a whole bunch of aimless scientists wandering the streets poking trees, chasing birds and attempting to get clown fish to mate with their parents. It’s far safer for everyone if these scientists are kept busy and employed, not just for their own good, but for the world at large. If you haven’t yet contacted your representative regarding your concern for these poor feckless scientists and their research, she encourages you to do so now.

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