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Wednesday, 30 March 2011 19:26

The attack of the killer jumping worms

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It wiggles nicely on a hook at the end of a fishing line. It also has such a large appetite for decaying vegetation that it can eat its body weight every day, so it’s great for composting. It’s no wonder that fishermen and gardeners love it so much.

It can also jump nearly a foot, more than enough to escape from a bait bucket or composting bin, and once loose in the natural world it seems to have few limits, if any. It plows through the forest floor, eating all the leaf litter in its path, leaving no place for creatures like salamanders and millipedes.

Researchers have even found it in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where fishing with live bait is prohibited, and no one is left to practice any gardening or composting. They haven’t found it in just one isolated spot, but in half of all the sites they have sampled.

I’m guessing there’s one somewhere near you right now. Probably a lot more than one.

It goes by more names than a secret agent. It’s often called an Alabama Jumper or Georgia Jumper, though it’s not native anywhere in the United States. It’s more accurately known as the Asian Jumping Worm, and scientists refer to it as Amynthas agrestis. However, since different species of worms look fairly similar to the untrained eye, it may be mistakenly bought or sold with the name of any of the dozens of native and exotic earthworms now found in the United States.

Most of the time, earthworms actually offer a lot of benefits to almost any vegetation trying to grow on land, from forests to agricultural crops to home gardens, because they aerate the soil and produce nutrient-rich “castings,” the official scientific name for worm poop.

After traveling to the Galapagos Islands back in the 1800s, some guy named Charles Darwin spent several decades studying earthworms and their impacts on soil health, thus becoming one of the world’s first experts on earthworms. His conclusion? “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organised creatures.”

Both before and after Darwin’s time, humans have traveled the globe in trips both big and small, bringing with them potted plants, bait, mulch, and more, in the process transferring many species of earthworms to new locations. As is often the case (kudzu, multiflora rose, hemlock woolly adelgid, and so on), the new arrivals have done more harm than good, but the Asian Jumping Worm has set a new standard for forest floor destruction.

Current methods of controlling this worm are few and far between. We can slow its spread by being much more selective about what’s in our bait buckets, nursery plants, composting bins, and mulch. Also, since worms are high in protein and low in fat, we might all want to pick up some ideas from Thomas Rockwell’s 1973 novel How to Eat Fried Worms. Perhaps Rockwell, like Darwin, was ahead of his time. Just make sure you eat the exotic ones, and let the native worms be.

(George Ivey is a Haywood County-based and author of the novel Up River. Contact him at www.georgeivey.com.)

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