Poor, lowly earthworms, given such short shrift. With nary a thought from us, they quietly work magic day and night, right under our very feet. We should be celebrating them as did the ancient Egyptians, because they’re the champs of soil restoration. Aristotle called them “the intestines of the earth.”
Jump down to: Background • Physical description, Slime • Internal organs • Head, brain, mouth • Senses, Movement • Behavior, Hibernation, Tunneling, Middens • Foods, Habitat • Reproduction • Lifespan, Predators, Threats
Earthworms are the primary force that pulls residue from crops and other plants into the soil where microorganisms transform it into rich, loamy humus. Worm poo is a potent fertilizer—five times richer in nitrogen, seven times richer in phosphates, and 11 times richer in potassium than the surrounding soil. Their tunnels aerate, which provides better drainage and prevents erosion. Taken all together, their labor benefits the food we eat, the flowers we love, and the trees that shade us. Even other wildlife gain something because the worms themselves are food. Humans in some parts of the world eat them, too.
Fortunately, we’re entering a sort of earthworm Renaissance where people of all stripes—from farmers of sizable acreage to home gardeners tending a small bed—are coming to recognize that these hidden gems underlie much of earth’s bounty. In some parts of the world, agricultural areas are even going “no-till,” to safeguard them.
BackgroundEarthworms are ancient. In 2002, Australian researchers found a fossilized trail in sandstone they believe was made by a worm-like animal perhaps 1.2 billion years ago. The fossil is not only the oldest evidence of the earthworm’s existence, but it also marks it as earth’s oldest multi-celled animal.
Earthworms are animals in the phylum Annelida, along with leeches. The name comes from Latin anellus for “little ring,” a reference to the many segments of their bodies. Today about 2,700 species are known to exist, and they’re found on every continent, except Antarctica. In the United States, there are about one hundred species of native earthworms and another fifteen or so that are non-natives.
Types of earthworms
Earthworms don’t all perform the same kind of work or live at the same depth. There are three major groups:
- Surface-soil species: These earthworms live just under the soil surface or within organic matter lying on top. Researchers have found that they’re most numerous in the crowns of grass clumps—the junction where stems and roots meet. They’re shaded there and hidden from birds while they feed on decaying leaves and roots. The grass also offers some protection from high temperatures. Some species live in the highly rich environment of compost piles and can’t survive in soil containing less organic matter. Typically small, these earthworms have adapted better than other species to extremes of heat, cold and moisture.
- Upper-soil species: These earthworms live close to the surface and feed on soil and whatever organic matter it contains. Their tunnels are temporary and become filled with worm droppings, which adds nutrients to subsoil.
- Deep-burrowing species: Typically called nightcrawlers, they form permanent, vertical tunnels that may go down 8 feet (2.4 m) into the soil. They create middens at the entrance to the tunnels.
Earthworms vary widely in size, but most are only a few inches long, and some are less than an inch (25.4 mm). But, there is an outlier, the Giant Gippsland Earthworm, Megascolides australis, an endangered (and harmless) Australian species that lives in the subsoil and can grow up to 9.8 feet (3 m) long! That makes the nightcrawler Lumbricus terrestris the largest US earthworm simply Lilliputian by comparison, at only 10 inches (25.4 cm).
To most of us, earthworms look pretty much alike. To experts, though, there are many differences. There’s body length, of course, but they also vary in such characteristics as coloration, number of body segments, and type and location of tiny body hairs called setae.
Earthworms range in color from reddish to gray to brown. Their skin, called a cuticle, is soft and permeable. It’s also slimy—so much so that most people are reluctant to touch them.
Slime is prime!
Except for the yuck factor, slime is harmless, and for earthworms, it’s a lifeline. Produced by a thick ring of glandular tissue called the clitellum (kly-TELL-um), it’s a mucus that’s crucial for its role in keeping them moist. There are several reasons why moisture is essential, but first and foremost, they need it for breathing. Oxygen enters directly into their bloodstream through tiny pores in their thin skin after dissolving in the mucus. If an earthworm dries, it dies.
Earthworms have no skeleton. They’re soft through-and-through, simple animals perfectly formed for the work they do. Their body is basically a muscular cylinder of ring-like segments called annuli (ANN-u-lie), which taper off at both ends. Some species have as many as 150 of them, each coated by mucus. They can slide through the soil like a sled across ice.
The body contains a simple circulatory system with two main blood vessels, five bands of tissue that pump blood, a digestive tract, reproductive organs, and an anus. They have two heart-like organs and between them are glands that manage calcium in their diet.
You may have wondered if earthworms have a head and brain. Well, they do! And the head can be identified. It’s called the prostomium and is at the end of the body closest to the clitellum (which is identifiable because it’s usually a lighter color than the rest of the body). They also have a mouth—toothless, but equipped with strong muscles for eating. And, eat they do—up to half or more of their body weight per day.
As for the brain, studies show it holds a mere 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses. By comparison, a fruit fly has 250,000 neurons and 10 million synapses. (Neurons act as transmitters of sensory input to and from the skin and muscles; synapses are the various connections between nerve cells.) Despite being so rudimentary, another study¹ shows they can “think” and decide whether to investigate a particularly delicious odor or not.
Earthworms use muscular “lips” and a sucking action to pull food into their mouth. There the food is moistened (if it isn’t already wet) and swallowed. It moves down the throat to a storage pouch called a crop. It goes from there to the gizzard, where powerful muscles grind and mix it with a little help from fine sand particles that have also been consumed.
By the time the now-pulverized food moves to the intestines, it’s a thick paste. Most of the earthworm’s body is intestines. As the food moves through that long tube, digestive juices break it down further, and nutrients pass into the bloodstream. What’s left over, mostly revitalized soil, exits the body through the anus.
There’s a name for worm poo: castings. Castings are so rich in nutrients that many people maintain a worm bin into which they throw their fruit and veggie scraps, crushed eggshells, coffee grounds, tea leaves, and more. The worms work their magic and the resulting compost is used in potting soil, as a mulch, or made into a “tea” to sprinkle as fertilizer.Here’s a site that explains vermicomposting
Having a simple body doesn’t mean they lack senses. Earthworms react to heat, cold, touch, and vibrations, and they have chemoreceptors that detect odors. They don’t have ears, a nose, or true eyes, but they have light-detecting cells. The ultraviolet rays in sunlight can kill them, so they always move away from direct light.
For movement, two different sets of muscles come into play: circular muscles that surround each segment and long muscles that run the length of the body.
Assisted by tiny, bristly setae to anchor segments to surfaces as needed, these muscles constrict and release in sequence, propelling the earthworm. They typically move forward (which is one way to tell their head from their rear), but they’re capable of backward movement, too. Video showing earthworm movement
A chop won’t make two
You may have heard that chopping an earthworm in two will produce two worms. That isn’t necessarily so. The front half might live and grow into a full-size body but only if it has the clitellum and 10 body sections behind it. When that happens, new growth will be a little smaller in diameter. The back part always dies.
To survive, earthworms need food, oxygen, moisture, a specific temperature range, and no sun. They’re ectothermic (cold-blooded), which means they don’t generate body temperature—they’ll always be the same as their surrounding environment. Most prefer 50 to 70 degrees F (10 and 21 C), but some species can tolerate a higher or lower range. They live closer to the surface in warm weather, to soak in some heat, and deeper in winter to avoid the cold. They’ll die if they freeze, so the colder it gets, the deeper they go.
They’re most active between dusk and dawn. It isn’t known if they sleep during daytime hours, but studies have shown they use less oxygen, which suggests a lower level of nervous activity.
In winter, some species live exclusively near the surface and die when temperatures drop to freezing. Others move below the frost line and hibernate. Groups of them may ball up together to reduce moisture loss. In spring, as the soil warms, they tunnel upward.
If conditions become too dry or too hot for normal activity, earthworms estivate, which is a stage of sleep that’s less deep than hibernation. It’s easy to identify estivating earthworms because they tie themselves up in a knot.
Earthworms move through the earth in tunnels they create. Some go horizontally, some vertically. Either way, tunneling aerates the soil, which allows oxygen and water to penetrate to plant roots and soil microorganisms. They eat soil and decomposing plant materials as they burrow. Good soil may hold up to a million earthworms per acre, eating as much as 10 tons of leaves and other plant matter per year.
Middens are piles of worm poo and plant residue. It isn’t precisely clear to experts why worms build middens, but it’s probably to hide their tunnel entrance while providing a handy pile of plant scraps to feed on from underneath, safe from sun and birds. They dissolve over time, and as they do, they fertilize the soil at the top and drain into the tunnels, which nourishes them, as well. In un-tilled soil, tunnels are permanent and used for several years. The grass around a midden is sometimes greener and taller.
What’s with those stranded earthworms?
Ever taken a walk right after a rain shower and found squiggling earthworms along your path? Why they surface and strand themselves like that is a mystery. What’s known for sure is that they don’t do it to avoid drowning. Edwin Berry, an entomologist with the USDA ARS,2 who studied earthworms for 10 years, found they can live for weeks in water. Some experts theorize that rain or high humidity offers them a chance to disperse to new feeding areas, a way to move around “outdoors,” as it were, without drying out. If you see one on the pavement, do it a favor: Pick it up and place it on the ground in a shady spot, because sunlight paralyzes them after about an hour, leaving them unable to move to safety.
Earthworms that live close to the surface eat plant matter, dead or alive—decaying roots, leaves, fruits, vegetables., seeds. Those living deeper mostly eat dirt, which contains fungi, bacteria, nematodes (a class of worms, usually microscopic in size), and other tiny organisms. (So, either way, worm excrement contains nutrients beneficial to plants.) Some worms live in compost bins where they feed on the garbage that gets tossed in.
Earthworms are hermaphrodites (her-MAFF-row-dites), which means they have both male and female reproductive organs. The male sex organs are in specific segments of their body, and the female organs are in other segments. Despite this, it still takes two worms to tango.
First, they must find each other, and it’s mostly through happenstance, like when they detect ground vibrations or the movement of leaves or grass when another is passing by. When that happens, they feel around until they locate each other. The mating process is involved, but, basically, they situate their bodies so that their heads point in opposite directions, with their sex organs aligned for the transfer of sperm from one earthworm into the sperm receptacle of the other. Their setae hold their slippery bodies together. Following their pairing, they separate and go their own way, both ready to reproduce.
So, okay, they’re now holding sperm they’ve gotten from each other, but how to combine it with the eggs they hold in a separate vesicle? Well, nature has provided a fix for this, of course. The clitellum (a band of mucus that encircles part of the body) secretes a ring of sticky mucus that slides forward, first over the segments containing eggs, which adhere to it, and then over segments containing the sperm, where they get fertilized. The mucus continues its way forward, carrying the fertilized eggs until it slips right off the front of the worm. Both ends seal, forming a cocoon that’s left lying on or in the soil.
Depending on the species, earthworms produce between three and 80 cocoons a year. Those that live deeper in the soil produce fewer. Cocoons, at first soft and then hard and leathery, are the size of a grain of rice and shaped like a lemon. It may hold between one and 20 fertilized eggs.
Depending on the species, the embryonic stage lasts from three weeks to five months. They develop in a way similar to that of a bird in an egg, by consuming nutritive matter within the egg. Embryos can survive underground until temperature and moisture conditions are just right for hatching. In less-than-optimal situations they may even overwinter and hatch the following spring. Babies become adults in 10 to 55 weeks. An earthworm without a noticeable clitellum is not yet a sexually mature adult.
Earthworms live from four to eight years, depending on the species.
Predators include snakes, birds, toads, rodents, moles, foxes, certain beetles, slugs, and humans
Intensive use of manure and acidic soil (they prefer neutral) can kill earthworms. Oxygen-depleted soil (such as heavy clay), drought, heavy metals (such as copper), pesticides and other chemicals, and tilling also lead to their death. No-till acreage can have up to 15 times the number of earthworms in a meter, according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature.
2 United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service