As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, now we’ve got jumping earthworms on our hands? Yep, you heard it right, a new invasive species has reared its eyeless and squirming head in these parts, causing another concerning eco stir. And similar to the actions of Asian carp – another invasive species that is on our doorstep – when these suckers are disturbed, they thrash about, hence their “jumping” moniker. It is also significant to note that these unwelcome critters are also slightly iridescent, and leave behind granular castings that resemble ground beef, according to earthworm scientist Nick Henshue.
“I had not seen any Amynthas (jumping earthworms) in Western New York until last summer. The first ones I saw here were given to me in a yogurt container by a gardener with one of the local park systems. They said, ‘Hey, is this what we think it is?’ And sure enough, it was,” says Henshue, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Environment and Sustainability in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences. “Friends in the local landscaping business were seeing them around 2018.
“And now, within a short time, I’ve been notified of sightings in different parts of the area. I have only seen them on campus in our forest, but others have brought them to me or sent pictures. They have been down South for a number of years, but were really only noticed widely in places like New England in the past 15-20 years.”
It is thought that the earthworms arrived in a shipment of mulch, similar to how other invasive species arrive – in the hands of humans. The kicker here is that these destructive worms live close to the earth’s surface, where they scavenge for fallen leaves. Typically, these leaves are left to decompose, and get recycled back into the soil, thus providing the trees with the nutrients that they need to thrive.
And yes, WNY trees have already suffered at the hands of the Emerald Ash Borer in recent years – a trip to the forested outskirts of the city is a very real, and very sad, eye opener, as countless ash trees stand dead, barren of leaves. Now, trees must deal with another invasive pest.
“In agricultural systems, earthworms can be great, but in forests in our area, these jumping worms reduce leaf litter, which is really a protective layer that we rely on to protect and hide seeds and keep the sun off newly germinating plants. The ability of earthworms, writ large, to reduce that leaf litter, to mix up different soil horizons, to add a whole lot of bacteria to the soil — it’s very disruptive to plants, to animals and to organisms that live in the soil.”
Another problem is that the jumping earthworms could displace beneficial earthworms that currently call WNY home, although this area was not always their home.
“We shouldn’t have earthworms at all in New York State, native or otherwise, because the glaciers pushed them so far south during the ice age,” he says. “But we do because of boats, bait, potted plants, soil being moved. Earthworm egg cases are tiny. They’re smaller than the backing of an earring. They get transported around really easily.
“People go to these pristine areas on fishing trips, and we see this as an invasion front. They dump their bait overboard because they think it will kill the earthworms or the fish will have a good meal, and what they don’t realize is that earthworms can live quite happily underwater for about three weeks or more if the water is oxygenated enough.”
Although these pests have now made their way to WNY, it’s still important that we do our part to slow the spread of the worms by practicing the following:
- Don’t use jumping worms as bait
- Be vigilant when taking part in plant swaps
- Obtain clean mulch and compost from reliable sources
Unfortunately, these types of sweeping warnings and preventative measures rarely get heeded, as we have seen with numerous other invasive species that have invaded our lands.
More information on identifying invasive “jumping” earthworms and preventing their spread: Cornell University Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet
Hat tip to Charlotte Hsu at the University at Buffalo’s News Center
Lead image: Earthworms belonging to the Amynthas species complex. Photo by Nick Henshue