Invasive Earthworms On The Move
Inside the Outdoors, September 18, 2009

A number of years ago, while owning my own bait shop, patrons used to come in and tell me about the worms found along the Loyalhanna Creek at one location in particular. At that time, I thought nothing of it – maybe they were some type of compost worm discovered in the leaves and among the soil underneath them.

Then, last year, as you may recall, I decided to go down to the place in question, Paddy’s Hole (so named after a miner who tried to swim across the creek, but drowned in the process). For decades, this locale was known as not only a good swimming hole (originally the Latrobe Beach), but also great for fishing as well.

The mere fact that this recreational location drew the attention of anglers laid the foundation of not only why I was led to conduct an investigation, but the follow-up on it this year as well.

When I first began, I imagined I would be finding the ordinary nightcrawler that many of us see in our gardens, on a paved sidewalk or roads after a rain, or something lying in the grass after hours of darkness. So, when I located some, I thought “No big deal. I’ll just pick them up and put them in a bucket.” What I did find, however, was not only somewhat of a big deal, but more of a very big deal than I ever imagined. What I would come to learn was that this nightcrawler was not the common worm at all, but a creature of destructive nature originally imported from Asia, deposited in Canada and packed with Canadian nightcrawlers and then purchased and transferred to areas by the fisherman. After using them, the ones left over would be discarded along the shores, in the water, or tossed into the woods. Now they come into this country via compost soil and vermiculite whereby people will transport them to their gardens in the substances. Instead of enriching their plants, these worms just may be killing them, instead.

I decided to ask around if anyone knew of these types of crawlers. I would tell representatives, the large crawlers are the usual dark reddish in color on top and on the sides, but grayish on the bottom, move as fast as a garter snake, and actually jump out of the container if I used a small can of sorts. If I tried to pick one up or move one in my hand, it would get very aggressive and plunge forward leaving an inch of tail in my hand. Finally, I would divulge that these earthworms could be seen moving from one area to the next on top of the soil. I would receive reports from others who told me that they would often see them crossing their paths as walked along the trail heading to the hole.

Inquiring, I would question people if what I had stated was familiar to them. Nobody seemed to be aware what was happening right here in the city of Latrobe.

My next step was to contact Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I was blessed to be able to touch base with Dr. John Rawlins, head of the section of invertebrate zoology. At first even he was a bit dubious, but after receiving the crawlers I sent him, he did an about face, so to speak, quickly arriving at two conclusions, one, that, “not only did I have a great story here,” but two, I “opened a new can of worms as well.”

Now, there are several things to consider here. One, these worms are very destructive in as much as they are starting to destroy the hardwood trees throughout the country. They are killing off North American plants, and centipedes and earthworms found in our soils. Finally, they are eating the leaves found under trees. Everything has a purpose when it comes to the biological cycles of the forest. For a foreign creature to come along and destroy them puts nature, on a whole, at risk.

Locally, this year, I decided to go beyond Paddy’s Hole and see what I could find. At first, I thought these earthworms only existed in one type of soil – that of sandy-dirt. Paddy’s Hole has a tremendous amount of sand that was trucked in to make a swimming hole back a good number of decades ago. Some of that sand has remained.

What I did find out in my exploration during the late summer months is that the worms had moved away from where they were originally found, but still in sandy soil. In addition, I also located them two plus miles downstream along the creek with the same soil content. Then recently, I decided to dig some place that wasn’t sandy. Sure enough, somewhere in the proximity of 100 feet from the creek where the soil was void of sand, there were a number of adults, but many more baby exotic nightcrawlers. They are on the move – inland. One lady who lives not far from the creek believes it may have been these worms that killed her flowers this year. It’s only speculative, and no actual conclusion can be drawn, unless I dig up her flower bed, and still, at this point, I, personally can’t draw that conclusion. I also found some under wild grass along Creekside Trail between the island and Legion Keener Park.

One has only to Google the Internet and write in “Invasive Worms” or “Exotic Worms,” and tons of information will be available to read just what we have living in our town. Even the United States Department of Agriculture has issued releases stating that these invasive earthworms are problematic threats throughout our country. That in itself ought to give anyone a heads-up. And the bottom line - there is nothing that can be done about it, at least for now.

My only recommendation is, if you happen to see one, or are fishing with them, make sure the surpluses are killed when you are done. Don’t fling them into the water or on the shore. Take note of this: It is illegal to throw exotic worms along the shores or in the woods. That, if nothing else, ought to reveal the impact these worms have on our environment. If you posses these worms, it is your obligation to dispose of them properly.

- Paul J. Volkmann
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