Science

The Hunt For The Elusive Giant Palouse Earthworm

Northwest Public Radio | Nov. 28, 2007 8 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:18 a.m. | Colfax, WA

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By Anna King

It’s three feet long, it smells like a lily and it can spit at attackers. But so far the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't want to pay to study the giant Palouse earthworm.

Environmental groups plan to sue to make that happen and to protect the worm under the Endangered Species Act. But studying the worms is a difficult task. In the last 100 years scientists have only found them three times.

Richland correspondent Anna King recently followed a University of Idaho researcher on a quest for the elusive ground-dweller.


 Worm
Jodi Johnson-Maynard shows off the last giant Palouse earthworm that was found a couple of years ago by one of her grad students.

The odds don’t look good. It’s fall, not spring. It hasn’t rained recently. And there are hundreds of acres of prairie land stretching out before us just outside of Colfax.

Then again, the odds are never good when you are searching for the Sasquatch of Eastern Washington — the giant Palouse earthworm.

Jodi Johnson-Maynard: "It’s well known that giant earthworms are difficult to sample. It’s just a matter of coming on the right day, right time and using the right sampling technique to find it."

That’s Jodi Johnson-Maynard a professor of soil science at the University of Idaho.

For the past seven years part of her job has been digging up prairie soils to find the giant Palouse earthworm.

Her method is simple; she uses a shovel to turn over dirt. But it takes patience.

Johnson never intended to study earthworms but she’s always been interested in what lies beneath her feet.

Jodi Johnson-Maynard: "I remember getting in trouble ‘cause my mother’s spoons were all disappearing when I was a kid. I was taking them outside to dig. So probably my interest started at a fairly young age. I kind of fell into it when I was doing my PHD and got hooked on them and have been studying them ever since."

After a bit of huffing and puffing up the steep terrain we finally arrive.

Jodi Johnson-Maynard: "That’s the spot."

That’s the same bluff where the giant Palouse was found two years ago.

Jodi Johnson-Maynard: "Now don’t you notice how the clouds are opening up and the sun beams are striking the exact location for us there?"

It wasn’t Johnson who found the famous giant it was one of her grad students who captured the worm and the headlines.

 worm 2
Jodi Johnson-Maynard digs for the giant Palouse earthworm on Smoot Hill just east of Colfax, Wash.

Jodi Johnson-Maynard: "I was upset I wasn’t there.  I can’t remember why I wasn’t there. But it was one of those things. Darn it.  I knew I should have gone today."

Johnson and one of her grad students Karl Umiker dig up dirt and filter the soil with their hands. They are looking for giant Palouse worm tunnels, poop or slimy secretions.

They find some worm poop, but they don’t know if it’s from the giant Palouse. So they turn to plan B.

SOUND: Mustard

That’s the sound of common household mustard mixed with vinegar and water. The solution is an irritant to the worm’s sensitive skin. It’s supposed to drive them out of hiding.

It didn’t work.

So after two hours of digging and squirting we return to the car.

The closest we come this day to a giant Palouse is one locked inside of a test tube in Johnson’s car.

Still, Johnson is not discouraged. She’s got new ideas of how to hunt for the worm.

She says the mucous the worms leave behind as they tunnel through the earth sticks around. She wants to test the DNA of the slime.

It might be enough to prove the worms’ existence.


Online:

University of Idaho’s soils program
 
 

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