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Turning the worm - meet a lady on a mission

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Paul Deane Paul Deane | 12:19 UK time, Monday, 4 June 2012

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.

Emma Sherlock

Emma Sherlock

How I got so passionate about earthworms? Well it was partly by accident I guess. I had always been interested in natural history and the outdoors and knew that after finishing my zoology degree I wanted to work at the Natural History Museum.

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!

Emma Sherlock and earthworms

Emma Sherlock

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.

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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!!


  • Comment number 1.

    We have a bird in the garden wed not recognize. Looks like a Robin, the size of a Robin, hops around like a Robin, but has a brown flecked head, back and chest?

  • Comment number 2.

    Sounds like it could either be a juvenile robin or a dunnock

  • Comment number 3.

    On Sunday my wife came in and said there was a baby blue tit on the greenhouse. Of course it had gone by the time I got there. However, we found it on the garage roof. Then, the whole garden seemed to be alive with blue tits. We think there were about six babies and two frantic parents trying to herd them together. It seemed that the fledglings could only fly in straight lines and not very far at that. We were getting dive bombed! The fledglings came to rest in our cherry tree and I rushed in the house to get my camera. I managed to photograph one quite clearly and another, in the same tree, partially hidden. It was a wonderful experience and was all over very quickly as they flew off over the hedge, closely pursued by mum and dad!

    From Mick Ames, Malvern, Worcs.

  • Comment number 4.

    Can you please tell me if pied wagtails would nest at the side of the road? I live in Ross-Shire and I am forever trying to avoid hitting these lovely birds and I had it in my mind that springwatch a few years ago had a piece about this very subject. My father in law laughed and said don't be silly lass....i have tried to find info on the internet but to no avail. Please help me prove he doesn't know everything :) Many thanks in advance. Loving the show tonight.

  • Comment number 5.

    So far Chris Packham has mentioned 'Alladin Sane', 'Wild is the Wind' & 'Golden Years' (maybe more) in his commentary! Is he attempting to get a Record for BOWIE references in each Programme?

  • Comment number 6.

    My mum's garden in Edinburgh is famous for having NO WORMS - or at least fewer than ten sightings in 20 years. Why might this be? What can we do to improve its worm count?

  • Comment number 7.

    This was the best part of tonights show! Such enthusiasm.


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