Turning the worm - meet a lady on a mission
On Springwatch tonight we're meeting Emma Sherlock - the free-living worm curator (as opposed to parasitic worms) at the Natural History Museum London and the President of the Earthworm Society of Britain. Here's Emma to introduce herself and her work.
If I have a real goal or mission in life, it's that by the time I hang up my forceps and spade at the end of my career I have changed the public's perception of the humble earthworm for good.
I started volunteering in the parasitic worm group and whilst finding it fascinating I was still drawn more toward their free-living cousins. Eventually a job came up as a curator in free-living worms and my first scientific visitor to host was an old man named Victor Pop. He was at the time in his late 70's, from Romania, and had worked on earthworms all his life (as his father had before him). There was nothing Victor didn't know about these industrious little beasts but he also was the discoverer of the largest earthworms in Europe. Victor invited me out to Romania to work with him in his lab and I was able to collect these European giants for myself, indigenous to the Carpathian mountains. I will never forget marching into the mountain with big buckets of water, the excitement wondering if they would or wouldn't appear from under the leaf litter.
We were lucky. The leaves started to twitch and then slowly out emerged these giant, muscular, shining beauties. I have never considered working on another animal group since!
I first met Victor nearly 10 years ago now and in that time the thing that has struck me most when studying earthworms from different parts of the world is that there is a resounding theme, no one takes much notice of earthworms. I was lucky enough to go to Nicaragua a few years ago with Frontier - the conservation group. Only 3 earthworms had ever been recorded from Nicaragua. However, when you consider the range of habitats, there is likely to be around 200 different species. In a short space of time, we were able to present a paper detailing 18 new species records for the country and 2 new species to science (one of them being my blue worm!), however I would love to go back with a lot more time and sample properly.
Britain is no exception to the lack of enthusiasm when talking about earthworms but why? Ok so we don't have bright blue worm or absolute giants here but we do have bright green ones and they are common, we have large worms with deep black heads and the nightcrawler can get up to 30 cm long (as long as a school ruler) and can be nearly as thick as your little finger. In our compost heaps we have the tiger worm, when it stretches out it is stripy and if you irritate it, it gives off a bright yellow smelly goo to deter birds. There is a really large diversity and they are just sooo important. Aristotle called them the 'intestines of the world' and I think that's very apt. They are hugely important for the health of our soils and the decomposition of organic matter. If they disappeared tomorrow life on this planet would never be the same again.
Despite this we have county recorders all over the country recording all sorts of British wildlife but no one is recording the earthworms. At the Museum last year we produced the first earthworm distribution maps for the UK , they are very bare. Some species we just a handful of records for, are they in danger in this country? Or are we just not looking far and wide enough for them? There is so much we don't know about these hugely important animals.
So if you fancy getting involved then sign up to the Earthworm society of Britain, come on one of our free ID courses. This can be using the OPAL key to have a look at the most common British species, no microscope required, or if you are a budding amateur naturalist it's getting trained up to use the microscope and start recording all our species. Collecting earthworms is really easy and they literally are everywhere. We have lots of hints and tips on our website though to get you started www.earthwormsoc.org.uk. The data can be fed into our website and we can start using this for some real science, finding out more about these humble but fascinating creatures.
If after reading this, you just take a second look at the worms you dig up in the garden, or the worms you see on the path on the way to work or when you next walk through a field it crosses your mind how many hundreds of thousands of worms might be working hard beneath your feet, then I will still be very happy indeed!!