So you think all earthworms are the same? Think again! There are more than 4400 species of earthworms worldwide. Earthworms usually live anywhere you can find moist soil or dead plant matter, in mud or muck around freshwater and under the sea. Moist soil conditions are important for earthworm survival and it is not uncommon to find more than 1 million earthworms per acre of habitable soil.
Commonly referred to as “night crawlers,” earthworms are characterized by smooth skin, segmented bodies and lots of stiff microscopic hairs to help them travel or wiggle along from place to place. The size of an earthworm varies. They can be as little as an inch long or, depending on the region, they can grow or stretch to as much as 10 feet long (like the Giant Gippsland, in Australia). While the Giant Gippsland in Australia can grow up to 10 feet long, the largest earthworm ever recorded was found in 1967 in Williamstown Africa, and measured a whopping 22 feet long from nose to tail.
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Earthworms do not have a skeleton or eyes, but they do have lots of muscles, five hearts and a nerve center called ganglia. They have the ability to detect light and vibrations and they have strong senses of taste and touch. Most people are familiar with the typical reddish-brown, gray, pinkish or muted violet-coloured earthworms, but if you travel to the Philippines you’ll find indigo-blue earthworms wiggling around on the forest floor. Travel to the UK and you’ll find brilliant green earthworms around all British and Irish coasts.
Earthworms have many defense mechanisms designed to protect against the elements and enemies such as birds, beetles, snakes, slugs and moles. During the cold winter months or during droughts, to avoid freezing or perishing due to lack of moisture, earthworms can travel as much as 16 feet below the earth’s surface. Their bodies produce mucus which helps them slide through the soil easily and safely. While the word “mucus” is synonymous with “I can’t breathe” for humans, for earthworms it’s just the opposite. In addition to helping the earthworm move from place to place, mucus also keeps the skin moist so it can breathe. To defend itself against enemies, earthworms will retreat to and hide in deep burrows in the soil and they may also secrete bad tasting chemicals. Earthworms also have the ability to regenerate themselves if necessary, meaning that they can grow a new tail if a bird gets too close and nips off their tail.
The earthworm is a fortunate creature when it comes to sustenance. They feed off dead and decaying plant material, leaves, roots, dead roots and other miscellaneous organic materials. And the planet as a whole is also very fortunate to have the earthworm as a habitant, as their manure, or ‘castings’, is a rich fertilizer for plants and it also protects against soil disease. In addition, the earthworm produces burrows that allow air and water to reach the roots of plants, and they also compost plant residues. If you’re wondering how the earthworm’s slender body can produce enough castings/fertilizer to make a difference consider this: an earthworm can produce an amount of excrement equal to its own body size and weight every 24 hours!
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Earthworms have been enriching the soil and promoting plant growth for millions of years. These small creatures should not be taken for granted as they are essential to healthy, prospering ecosystems.