The early bird may not be able to get this worm—the giant Gippsland earthworm can measure a whopping 3 feet (0.9 meter) in length. By comparison, the common earthworm is a few inches long.
Despite its size and the odd gurgling sound it makes traveling through the soil, the worm is rarely seen, burrowing deep in the soil in the Bass River Valley of South Gippsland, Australia (map).
The worm is also rarer than it used to be due to clearing of eucalyptus forests, which provide ideal soil conditions for the animal to thrive. (Also see “New ‘Devil Worm’ Is Deepest-Living Animal.”)
The forests disappeared in the 19th century, when the first Europeans settled Australia and chopped down forests to make room for pasture and farmland.
Now, most colonies of giant Gippsland earthworms are found only under small, isolated patches of vegetation on privately owned farms, and the species is considered vulnerable to extinction by the Australian government.
To bring the worm back, the government is encouraging Gippsland farmers to create worm-friendly habitat on their land. It’s a win-win: Earthworms get a home, and the farms’ soil quality is improved. The worms’ burrowing and feeding activity helps keep plants healthy, improve drainage, and stabilize soil structure, all of which contributes to more productive farms.
For instance, in 2013, a local organization called the South Gippsland Landcare Network was awarded a grant from the Australian government to work with local farmers to try innovative revegetation designs that help protect the soil moisture of giant Gippsland earthworm habitat. (Learn more about sustainable agriculture.)
The first Giant Gippsland Earthworm Information Session and Field Day was held in September, and organizers say it was a success.
At the event, which was hosted by a local dairy farm, a biologist discussed the history, biology, and habitat requirements of the worms. Participants also visited one of the giant Gippsland earthworm colonies near the farm, where “the worms were quite active with lots of gurgling and squelching noises, much to the delight of those present,” according to the website.
The project is looking for more farmers to take part in trials of different revegetation techniques to see what plant species are best suited to housing giant Gippsland earthworms.
These farms can then act as demonstration sites that other landowners can visit to learn about how to encourage new colonies of the huge worms on their own farms.
Tell us: What does the giant Gippsland earthworm remind you of?