When Do Worms Turn?
If the earthworm detects an unfamiliar object next to its skin, the muscles will contract immediately and the body will turn to avoid the object. The worm will also turn in response to heat and, in a lesser degree, to light and sound. Even the heat given out by an ordinary match some inches away, will cause a worm to retreat.
Sound waves will also lead the earthworm to change direction rather than approach what, to human ears, may seem only a slight noise. Light, on the other hand, usually attracts the worm. It turns inquisitively to inspect the brighter patch, even although, of course, earthworms can live under ground for long periods.
The phrase “even a worm will turn” is used in the sense that even the humblest of creatures will eventually rebel if goaded or pushed too hard. But the phrase has no real relationship to the activities of worms as such.
Of all the members of the soil food web, earthworms need the least introduction. Most people become familiar with these soft, slimy, invertebrates at a young age. Earthworms are hermaphrodites, meaning that they exhibit both male and female characteristics.
They are major decomposers of dead and decomposing organic matter, and derive their nutrition from the bacteria and fungi that grow upon these materials. They fragment organic matter and make major contributions to recycling the nutrients it contains.
Earthworms occur in most temperate soils and many tropical soils. They are divided into 23 families, more than 700 genera, and more than 7,000 species. They range from an inch to two yards in length and are found seasonally at all depths in the soil.
In terms of biomass and overall activity, earthworms dominate the world of soil invertebrates, including arthropods.
What Do Earthworms Do?
Earthworms dramatically alter soil structure, water movement, nutrient dynamics, and plant growth. They are not essential to all healthy soil systems, but their presence is usually an indicator of a healthy system. Earthworms perform several beneficial functions.
Stimulate microbial activity. Although earthworms derive their nutrition from microorganisms, many more microorganisms are present in their feces or casts than in the organic matter that they consume. As organic matter passes through their intestines, it is fragmented and inoculated with microorganisms. Increased microbial activity facilitates the cycling of nutrients from organic matter and their conversion into forms readily taken up by plants.
Mix and aggregate soil. As they consume organic matter and mineral particles, earthworms excrete wastes in the form of casts, a type of soil aggregate. Charles Darwin calculated that earthworms can move large amounts of soil from the lower strata to the surface and also carry organic matter down into deeper soil layers. A large proportion of soil passes through the guts of earthworms, and they can turn over the top six inches (15 cm) of soil in ten to twenty years.
Increase infiltration. Earthworms enhance porosity as they move through the soil. Some species make permanent burrows deep into the soil. These burrows can persist long after the inhabitant has died, and can be a major conduit for soil drainage, particularly under heavy rainfall. At the same time, the burrows minimize surface water erosion. The horizontal burrowing of other species in the top several inches of soil increases overall porosity and drainage.
Improve water-holding capacity. By fragmenting organic matter, and increasing soil porosity and aggregation, earthworms can significantly increase the water-holding capacity of soils.
Provide channels for root growth. The channels made by deep-burrowing earthworms are lined with readily available nutrients and make it easier for roots to penetrate deep into the soil.
Bury and shred plant residue. Plant and crop residue are gradually buried by cast material deposited on the surface and as earthworms pull surface residue into their burrows.
Different species of earthworms inhabit different parts of the soil and have distinct feeding strategies. They can be separated into three major ecological groups based on their feeding and burrowing habits. All three groups are common and important to soil structure.
Surface soil and litter species – Epigeic species. These species live in or near surface plant litter. They are typically small and are adapted to the highly variable moisture and temperature conditions at the soil surface. The worms found in compost piles are epigeic and are unlikely to survive in the low organic matter environment of soil.
Upper soil species – Endogeic species. Some species move and live in the upper soil strata and feed primarily on soil and associated organic matter (geophages). They do not have permanent burrows, and their temporary channels become filled with cast material as they move through the soil, progressively passing it through their intestines.
Deep-burrowing species – Anecic species. These earthworms, which are typified by the “night crawler,” Lumbricus terrestris, inhabit more or less permanent burrow systems that may extend several meters into the soil. They feed mainly on surface litter that they pull into their burrows. They may leave plugs, organic matter, or cast (excreted soil and mineral particles) blocking the mouth of their burrows.