It’s three feet long, it’s white, it smells like lilies, it spits when you pick it up, and it’s almost extinct.
What is it?
It’s the Giant Palouse Earthworm!
Five groups, the Center for Biological Diversity, the
Friends of the Clearwater, the Palouse Audubon Society, the Palouse Prairie Foundation and the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club, all filed a petition with the US U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Giant Palouse Earthworm (Driloleirus americanus) as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. Here is an old listing petition for the Giant Palouse Earthworm. The new one is probably similar.
It’s only been seen on six occasions in the past 110 years. In 1897, it was described a “very abundant.” Multiple searches for it in the past two decades have come up blank, but it was recent found by a graduate student in 2005, so it’s apparently still around, though it is probably not abundant as it was in 1897. Considering all of the searches that have come up blank, it’s probably very rare instead.
99.99% of the Palouse Prairie, a region 2 million acres of rolling wheat fields in northeastern Washington State far northern Idaho has has been converted to (98%) or disturbed by agriculture. Many animals dependent on the prairie have experienced dramatic declines, and many plants are thought to have disappeared completely.
The sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanchus phasianellus), white-tailed jack rabbit (Lepus townsendii), ferrunginous hawk (Buteo regalis), and spotted frog (Rana pretiosa) populations are seriously threatened. Two butterflies are rare – Johnson’s hairstreak (Callophrys johnsoni) is a species of concern and Shepard’s Parnassian (Parnassius clodius shepardii) is listed as a candidate species for State of Washington Species of Concern. Of these, I will say that the Colombia spotted frog definitely needs to be listed as an endangered species.
Four plants, transparent milkvetch (Astragalus diaphanous), long-tubed evening primrose (Oenothera flava), liverwort monkey-flower (Mimulus jungermannioides) and kidney-leaved violet (Viola renifolia), have disappeared entirely.
Other plants are considered rare, threatened or endangered, including Jessica’s aster (Aster jessicae), yellow lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum), Wanapum locoweed (Oxytropis campestris var. wanapum), broadfruit mariposa (Calochortus nitidus), Palouse thistle (Cirsium brevifolium), Palouse goldenweed (Haplopappus liatriformis) and Thompson’s clover (Trifolium thompsonii).
Palouse goldenweed and Jessica’s aster probably need to be listed as threatened species by the USFWS.
It’s said to be three feet long, but that’s actually as big as it can grow to. Any individual worm you find may be quite a bit shorter.
An earlier petition was turned down in 2006 by Bush’s USFWS on the grounds that there was not enough information about the worm to warrant listing. In other words, the thing is so rare that there’s no way to tell if it’s endangered or not because hardly anyone ever finds one. In other words, if you can’t even count them, who knows how many there are? This is one of the binds that extremely rare or hard to find species fall into, and honestly, it’s just a trap used by FWS to deny listings.
FWS, in denying the listing, suggested that just because 98% of the land had been converted to ag did not mean that the worm was going extinct. The implication was that the worm could be living quite well in ag lands, but I’m not sure if that is true. It’s quite clear to me that this worm was very abundant in 1897 and now it’s hardly ever found. That means it’s endangered.
It does smell like lilies, and it is white. There are quite a few native earthworms in the US, but most of the worms that are used in bait are not native to the US.
We used to dig for worms as kids at Talbert Lake in Huntington Beach back in the 1970’s, and there was a native worm that lived there that was white-colored. That worm was really killer on the local fish; it worked better than the worms you bought, probably because it was native to the area and the fish were used to eating them.
The ground around that lake was pure peat former lakeshore and it was very easy to dig for worms, plus worms were very abundant in that extremely rich peat. I assume if you farmed that peat, you could grow some great crops; that soil was rich as Hell. In addition, that soil had a very strong and funky smell to it. Not so much that it smelled bad, more that it smelled like pure fertilizer.
This link is a great backgrounder on the worm.