Hunting for 'Super Worm' in your backyard
JANESVILLE—Faster than a speeding mole!
More powerful than your ordinary earthworm!
Able to leap out of hands and across the state!
Look! There, in your garden! It's amynthas agrestis!
Sorry. We recognize “amynthas agrestis” is a disappointing anti-climax to those four lines.
But for Wisconsin's forests, the amynthas agrestis—or jumping worm—is a super threat, a collective kryptonite that reproduces rapidly all on its own.
This summer, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is asking the public to be on the lookout for jumping worms.
“We're asking people to report sightings because we want to get an idea of how widespread it is,” said Bernie Williams, invasive plants and earthworms outreach specialist for the DNR.
Yes, that's right. The DNR has an invasive earthworm outreach specialist.
Jumping worms pose a serious danger to state forests. They change the soil, disrupting the natural decomposition of leaf litter on the forest floor. The “grainy, dry worm castings (poop) cannot support the understory plants,” according to a DNR fact sheet.
The loss of understory plants makes it easier for invasives such as garlic mustard, buckthorn and honeysuckle to thrive. When the forest ecosystem changes, all the wildlife it supports is affected.
“Forest floor leaf litter is comparable to the skin on an animal. It retains moisture, protects roots, breathes, prevents erosion, deters pathogens and non-native plants and promotes seed germination,” Williams wrote in the June issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. “When leaf litter is consumed by earthworms, it's like removing the skin of the forest floor. Disturbance from earthworms exposes the soil and causes erosion, compaction and increased rainwater runoff.”
Wisconsin doesn't have any native earthworms—they were all killed in the Ice Age—but the jumping worms pose a special threat because they reproduce asexually.
And they do it a lot.
Jumping worms can manage five or six broods of junior jumpers each season. That's slower than “breeding like rabbits,” but not much.
Here's the other problem: “Worms have lots of predators—moles, salamanders, birds, badgers, possums,” Williams said. “But the jumping worms are so quick and so fast, they get away from predators.”
Apparently, the early bird only gets the slow worm.
In 2013, jumping worms were discovered in the UW-Madison's arboretum. Since that time, they have been found in Jefferson, Waukesha, Milwaukee and Outagamie counties.
By determining where the worms are, the DNR can help slow their spread with an education campaign similar to those for other invasive species.
For example, the Clean Boats, Clean Water campaign targeted the Eurasian water milfoil and zebra mussels by encouraging boaters to rinse their crafts when moving from lake to lake. Campers also are encouraged to “buy firewood locally, burn firewood locally” to prevent the spread of the invasive emerald ash borer.
The easiest way to identify the worms is by behavior. They don't just wiggle away from you; they jump and thrash about, more like garter snakes than ordinary earthworms.
All worms have a band around their middles called the clitellum. In jumping worms, the band is white to pale gray and flat. In ordinary earthworms, the clitellum is puffy and similar to the worm's color, according to the DNR fact sheet.
Jumping worms, which are native to Asia, can move from place to place in mulch, the soil around plants or root balls. That's why the DNR is urging people not to take plants from their gardens and transplant them at cabins in the north woods.
The worms also do not make good bait because their bodies are ridged and tend to fall apart on hooks. A Madison woman reported using them as bait, but Williams asked people not to, as this was another way to spread the beasts.
What should you do if you think you have them in your garden?
Take a photo—a selfie, perhaps—and send it and information about where you found the worms to [email protected].
Then destroy the worms by placing them in a sealed plastic bag.
“Put them in a plastic bag, and you'll have worm stew pretty quickly,” Williams said.