New threat: jumping worms. Are they already in WNY?

jumping worm Amynthas
The mature jumping worm (genus Amynthas) can be identified by its characteristic smooth, often milky white clitellum (the band near the head of the worm). The common European earth worm has a raised or saddleshaped, segmented clitellum that is darker in color. Note that this is what mature jumping worms look like; jumping worms probably won’t be mature for several weeks. Photo courtesy Susan Day / UW–Madison Arboretum

 

by Connie Oswald Stofko

There’s a new threat to Western New York gardens: jumping worms.

They’re bad for your garden, and they can really screw up the ecosystem of forests.

Jumping worms (so named because they jump and thrash when handled) can change the consistency of soil, making it granular and grainy, like coffee grounds. That hinders the germination of plants, said  Andrea Locke, coordinator for Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) in Western New York.

They can deplete the soil of nutrients. (See a great explanation of how this happens in the claymation video here.)

And because the soil isn’t bound together, erosion can occur.

Jumping worms can severely damage roots of plants in gardens and lawns.

They haven’t been spotted in the eight counties of Western New York yet, but they have been identified in Rochester and in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Could jumping worms already be in Western New York?

Maybe.

That’s where you come in.

Learn how to identify jumping worms and let researchers know whether or not you see them in your area through the Invasive Species Mapping Challenge.

A training webinar will be held at 12:15 p.m. tomorrow, Wednesday, June 26. Get details and sign up here. 

Update: You can see recordings of two webinars on jumping worms here. 

The Invasive Species Mapping Challenge is a friendly competition to teach residents how to identify, survey and report invasives. The aim is to gather data for New York State’s invasive species database.

The challenge was created originally to look for the invasive water chestnut, but it now includes jumping worms as well. Prizes will be awarded to the individuals that report the greatest number of observations, whether positive or negative. Positive observations– finding jumping worms or water chestnuts– are important, but negative observations– discovering that there aren’t any of these invasive species at a site– are just as important to researchers.

The challenge will be held from July 5-19, in conjunction with the fifth annual Invasive Species Awareness Week, July 8-14. This year’s theme is “What YOU can do to help stop the spread.”

See other events for Invasive Species Awareness Week here. 

Even if you don’t attend the training webinar or go to any events, jumping worms are pretty easy to identify, so read up on jumping worms and watch this claymation video that makes it easy to understand the problem.

The shocking truth about earthworms

“Most people don’t realize that there are no native earthworms in our area,” said Andrea Locke of (PRISM). “All our worms are invasives.”

The ones that you are happy to have in your compost pile are European earthworms. They’re invasive, too.

European earthworms can cause problems in forests, too, Locke said. They’re great at breaking down plant matter in your compost pile, but they’re also great at breaking down plant matter on the forest floor. European earthworms have increased the rate of decomposition of plant material, which has altered the nutrient cycles in the forest floor. That has favored other species over native species.

“We’re putting a lot of focus on the new invader, but it’s not good versus bad,” Locke said. “They’re both bad.”

European earthworms have impacts on native plants, and they have to be taken into account when managing natural areas.

So should I feel guilty about nurturing European earthworms in my compost bin?

“European earthworms have been here since Europeans have been here,” Locke said. “There’s nothing to do about it at this point– there’s no management for them. You can’t get rid of them. I wouldn’t worry about them (in your garden). It’s one of those things you have to let go.”

But jumping worms are different because there are steps we can take before they become established.

common invasive European earthworm
You can tell that this is the common European earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris) by looking at the clitellum, the band you see. It is raised and is darker than the white clitellum of the jumping worm. The European earthworm is invasive, too. Photo courtesy Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org

The jumping worm threat

“Jumping worms just came on our radar last year,”  Locke said. “It’s possible they’re widespread (in Western New York). It’s also possible they are located in isolated areas.

“If it turns out that jumping worms are not widespread, there may be things to do about them.

“We need to get folks to identify them. It’s pretty easy to identify them, so that’s nice. We want to get really good data this summer.”

There are three species of jumping worms: Amynthas agrestis (which is most often cited as the culprit), Amynthas tokioensis and Metaphire hilgendorfi.

Compared to European invasive worms, jumping worms reproduce more quickly, are more aggressive and can exist at higher densities. They can outcompete existing worm populations, do more damage to forests– and gardens– and do that damage faster.

What we can do about jumping worms

First, learn to identify jumping worms, Locke said. See the photos in this article and check out this factsheet for more on the crazy behavior of jumping worms.

If you see a jumping worm, please report it on iMapInvasives. You can make a report even if you didn’t attend any training and even if you don’t have an iMapInvasives account.

We can also take steps to prevent the spread of jumping worms. They include:

  • If you’re trading plants, be careful and check the soil for jumping worms before giving or accepting plants.
  • If you get compost, make sure it is heated high enough to kill jumping worms.
  • If you find jumping worms, place them in a plastic zip bag and set the bag in the sun for 10 minutes to make sure they are dead. Throw the bag of worms in the garbage.
  • Clean soil off your boots, trailers and trucks to make sure you’re not spreading any invasive species.
  • Don’t use jumping worms as bait. Of course, don’t use them in your garden or for vermicomposting, either.

Learn more about invasive species and the state’s ongoing efforts to manage invaders.

4 Comments on “New threat: jumping worms. Are they already in WNY?

  1. This is almost a joke; a dangerous worm?? How do European forest survive? However, I take environmental threats seriously. How does one check the soil? Take a shovel and dig right in? Are there signs to look for, like areas that are clear that should have leaf litter on it? Wilting plants that should be healthy? Inquiring minds want to know!

  2. This really makes me nervous. Now I have to watch my plants and the garden to see what is actually going on! I’ll be wearing my gloves all of the time now!

  3. Peggy, you can just look in your compost pile or your garden beds– wherever you might see earthworms. If you want to, you could check in your local park or wooded area. Yes, you could take a shovel and dig in. There could be jumping worms in an area before there are any signs of plant damage or missing leaf litter– We want to spot these jumping worms early. Some jumping worms can live in riparian areas, like shallow areas of creeks. The recent webinar had good instructions on looking for the jumping worms, and the recording will be posted here soon.

    You don’t have to check only during the Invasives Species Mapping Challenge July 5-19. You can check later in the summer, too. If jumping worms are here, it’s possible they could still be immature now and you won’t recognize them. Checking during the challenge and later in the summer, too, would be helpful.

    I don’t know the particulars of European worms in their native habitat, but I assume that there are predators that eat the worms as well as other factors that keep them in check. The same probably happens with the jumping worms in their native habitat in Asia.

    Thanks for taking these threats seriously!

  4. Sue, you don’t have to worry about the jumping worms hurting you while you’re in the garden. They do look kind of gross when they flail around, so if you makes you less nervous, yeah, wear gloves.

    But we should be nervous about jumping worms because invasive species can screw up our ecosystem. This happens whether the invasive species is an insect, fish, bird or worm.

    Please do look for jumping worms in your garden. If you find them, report it to iMapInvasives. If you don’t see any jumping worms, report that, too. The researchers want to know not just where jumping worms have been spotted, but where people have looked and haven’t found any.

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