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Scientists hunt for rare, giant worm

MOSCOW, Idaho — The giant Palouse earthworm has taken on mythic qualities in this vast agricultural region that stretches from eastern Washington into the Idaho panhandle — its very name evoking the fictional sandworms from Dune or those vicious creatures from the movie Tremors.

The worm is said to secrete a lilylike smell when handled, spit at predators, and live in burrows 15 feet deep. There have been only a handful of sightings.

But scientists hope to change that this summer with researchers scouring the Palouse region in hopes of finding more of the giant earthworms. Conservationists also want the Obama administration to protect the worm as an endangered species, even though little research has been done on it.

The worm may be elusive, but there's no doubt it exists, said Jodi Johnson-Maynard, a University of Idaho professor who is leading the search for the worm. To prove it, she pulled out a glass tube containing the preserved remains of a fat, milky-white worm. One of Johnson-Maynard's graduate students found it in 2005, and it is the only confirmed example of the species.

The worm in the tube is about 6 inches long, well short of the 3 feet that early observers of the worms in the late 1890s described. Documented collections of the species, known locally as GPE, have occurred only in 1978, 1988, 1990 and 2005.

The GPE was described as common in the Palouse in the 1890s, according to an 1897 article in the American Naturalist by Frank Smith, whose work was based on four samples sent to him by R.W. Doane of Washington State University in nearby Pullman.

Gary Budd, who manages a grain elevator in Uniontown, said no farmer he knows has talked about seeing the worm. He compared the creature to Elvis.

"He gets spotted once in a while too," Budd joked.

Scientists hunt for rare, giant worm 07/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 11:36pm]

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