|The earthworm is such a familiar sight that we
rarely give it a second glance, yet its contribution to soil fertility
is enormous. It is also an important food source for many small mammals.
The earthworm is a tunneler that eats its way through the soil, converting
clay into rich, living earth. Its activities over millions of years have
created the most fertile soils on the planet. Although commonly seen on
the ground in damp weather, the earthworm is always careful to keep itself
anchored to its burrow for a quick getaway.
Habits: The earthworm lives mostly underground, plowing through soil and creating complex burrow networks six feet or more. The earthworm’s body is a tube of muscle arranged in two layers. One set of fibers moves lengthwise like a girdle around its body. Tightening the girdle” forces the worm’s head forward like toothpaste squeezed out of a tube. A muscle contraction passes through the body, squeezing more of the worm up the tunnel until the long muscles can drag the tail forward and the contraction process starts again. Well lubricated with mucus, the worm can move through the hardest earth. The thin skinned earthworm has no resistance to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation so it only comes to the surface in wet weather. On rainy, wet nights it emerges to probe grasses and dead leaves for food or to mate.
Breeding: The earthworm has both male and
female sex organs, but it cannot fertilize itself. It mates to exchange
genetic material, similar to the way flowers cross pollinate each other.
The earthworm mates on the surface at night. Drawn together by scent, the
worms lie head to tail, enveloped in mucus. For an hour or more they exchange
sperm and store it in a special pouch.
Predators: The thrush, blackbird, and starling cock their heads and listen for worms moving underground. With a quick stab of the bill they catch the earthworm, but it uses tiny bristles on its body to anchor itself in the hole. A strong earthworm can break free, but sometimes part of it snaps off. If the break is near the end of the body, the earthworm can regenerate the missing part. Small animals like shrews, hedgehogs, badgers, foxes, and wolves all eat earthworms, and the mole eats about 50 earthworms a day – more in winter.
Food and Feeding: The earthworm eats the soil by crunching it in its muscular stomach, digesting organic material mixed in with the mineral fragments, and ejecting the rest. Some earthworm species dump waste on the surface, leaving coiled deposits called wormcasts, but others void waste below the ground. In old grassland soils, a cubic yard can hold to 500 worms. The soil becomes fertile as the worms leave a well drained, well aired, crumbly loam (soil with sand, clay, silt, and organic matter). The soil is very fertile because of a continuous turnover of nutrients from the lower levels to the surface. Acid moorlands contain few worms, causing the soil to be poorly drained, airless, compacted, and infertile. The earthworm also eats dead leaves after dragging them to its burrow.
Related Species: The 1,800 or so species
of earthworms are relatives of the leech, marine ragworm, and lugworm.
How the Earthworm Reproduces:
Did You Know:
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