Project: Great Lakes Worm Watch
Earthworms. They seem harmless enough, right? You usually run into them on the sidewalk after it rains or when you’re weeding your garden. What if I told you that earthworms are actually not native to many parts of the United States (specifically, the northern Great Lakes region), and were probably brought there by European settlers in the 1800s? Earthworms are really NOT the simple little creatures that they appear to be–and they sure can wreak havoc a non-native habitat!
Aren’t worms supposed to be good for the earth? Well, yes, when they are naturally-occurring. Exotic earthworms can lead to plant decomposition, changes in soil structure, and reduction in nutrient availability. These ground-level forest ecosystem shifts can lead to a chain reaction, affecting many other wildlife and plant species, and opening the door to other exotic species to invade. And simply saying “earthworms” isn’t really accurate-there are actually many thousand varieties of earthworms, and at least 16 are known to have invaded the Great Lakes region. Worms don’t seem so simple anymore, eh?
Luckily, Great Lakes Worm Watch, headquartered at the University of Minnesota, is on the case, and offering many opportunities to get involved, even if you’re not located in the Great Lakes region. According to their mission statement:
We provide the tools and resources for citizens to actively contribute to the development of a database documenting the distributions of exotic earthworms and their impacts across the region as well as training and resources for educators to help build understanding of the methods and results of scientific research about exotic earthworms and forest ecosystems ecology.
While new information is always emerging about exotic earthworm invasions and how they affect ecosystems, very little data exists about earthworm distribution across the Great Lakes region. While this information is invaluable to scientists studying these trends, it’s labor-intensive and expensive to fund, so volunteers are critical to this organization! The “How can I join?” section of the Worm Watch site outlines many ways that interested citizen scientists can get involved in ongoing earthworm studies and even start their own! There are also ideas for how we can help “stop the spread,” through simple adjustments to how you garden, bait fish, etc. The site is also a fantastic resource for educators, including ideas for games and activities to use in the classroom.
If you’re interested in more information about the Great Lakes Worm Watch, or have questions about getting involved, you can contact Ryan Hueffmeier at the Natural Resources Research Institute at UM-Duluth, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons