AskDefine | Define earthworms

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  1. Plural of earthworm

Extensive Definition

Earthworm is the usual name for the largest members of Oligochaeta (which is either a class or subclass depending on the author) in the phylum Annelida. In classical systems they were placed in the order Opisthopora, on the basis of the male pores opening posterior to the female pores, even though the internal male segments are anterior to the female. Theoretical cladistic studies have placed them instead in the suborder Lumbricina of the order Haplotaxida, but this may again soon change. Folk names for the earthworm include "dew-worm", "rainworm", "night crawler" and "angleworm" (due to its use as fishing bait).
Earthworms are also called megadriles (or big worms), as opposed to the microdriles (or small worms) in the families Tubificidae, Lumbriculidae, and Enchytraeidae, among others. The megadriles are characterized by having a multilayered clitellum (which is much more obvious than the single-layered one of the microdriles), a vascular system with true capillaries, and male pores behind the female pores.


Earthworms have a closed circulatory system. They have two main blood vessels that extend through the length of their body: a ventral blood vessel which leads the blood to the posterior end, and a dorsal blood vessel which leads to the anterior end. The dorsal vessel is contractile and pumps blood forward, where it is pumped into the ventral vessel by a series of "hearts" (aortic arches) which vary in number in the different taxa. A typical lumbricid will have 5 pairs of hearts. The blood is distributed from the ventral vessel into capillaries on the body wall and other organs and into a vascular sinus in the gut wall where gases and nutrients are exchanged. This arrangement may be complicated in the various groups by suboesophageal, supraoesophageal, parietal and neural vessels, but the basic arrangement holds in all earthworms. Earthworms eat in a unique way: their mouth cavity connects directly into the digestive tract without any intermediate processes. Most earthworms are decomposers feeding on undecayed leaf and other plant matter, others are more geophagous.


Earthworms are hermaphrodites (both female and male organs within the same individual). They have testes, seminal vesicles and male pores which produce, store and release the sperm, and ovaries and ovipores. However, most also have one or more pairs of spermathecae (depending on the species) that are internal sacs which receive and store sperm from the other worm in copulation. Some species use external spermatophores for transfer instead. Copulation and reproduction are separate processes in earthworms. The mating pair overlap front ends ventrally and each exchanges sperm with the other. The cocoon, or egg case, is secreted by the clitellum, the external glandular band which is near the front of the worm, but behind the spermathecae. Some time after copulation, long after the worms have separated, the clitellum secretes the cocoon which forms a ring around the worm. The worm then backs out of the ring, and as it does so, injects its own eggs and the other worm's sperm into it. As the worm slips out, the ends of the cocoon seal to form a vaguely lemon-shaped incubator (cocoon) in which the embryonic worms develop. They emerge as small, but fully formed earthworms, except for a lack of the sexual structures, which develop later in about 60 to 90 days. They attain full size in about one year. Several common earthworm species are mostly parthenogenetic, that is, with asexually reproduction resulting in clones.


Earthworms have the facility to replace or replicate lost segments, but this ability varies between species and depends on the extent of the damage.. Stephenson (1930) devoted a chapter of his monograph to this topic, while G.E. Gates spent 20 years studying regeneration in a variety of species, but “because little interest was shown”, Gates (1972) only published a few of his findings that, nevertheless, show it is theoretically possible to grow two whole worms from a bisected specimen in certain species. Gates’s reports included:
  • Eisenia fetida (Savigny, 1826) with head regeneration, in an anterior direction, possible at each intersegmental level back to and including 23/24, while tails were regenerated at any levels behind 20/21
  • Lumbricus terrestris Linneus, 1758 replacing anterior segments from as far back as 13/14 and 16/17 but tail regeneration was never found.
  • Perionyx excavatus Perrier, 1872 readily regenerated lost parts of the body, in an anterior direction from as far back as 17/18, and in a posterior direction as far forward as 20/21.
  • Lampito mauritii Kinberg, 1867 with regeneration in anterior direction at all levels back to 25/26 and tail regeneration from 30/31; head regeneration was sometimes believed to be caused by internal amputation resulting from Sarcophaga sp. larval infestation.
  • Criodrilus lacuum Hoffmeister, 1845 also has prodigious regenerative capacity with ‘head’ regeneration from as far back as 40/41.
An unidentified Tasmanian earthworm shown growing a second head is reported here:



Earthworms are seen on the surface after large rain storms flood the soil because, despite needing a moist environment to allow the diffusion of gases across their skin membrane, where the soil becomes saturated they begin to drown. To protect themselves they escape to the surface but if the ground is un-naturally hard they may become stranded and die from exposure. This is why they are seen in places like driveways after a storm. However, this theory is not applicable to certain earthworm species that can survive immersion for several days in oxygenated water.
Earthworms travel underground by the means of waves of muscular contractions which alternately shorten and lengthen the body. The shortened part is anchored to the surrounding soil by tiny claw-like bristles (setae) set along its segmented length. (Typically, earthworms have four pairs of setae for each segment but some genera are perichaetine, having a large number of setae on each segment.) The whole burrowing process is aided by the secretion of lubricating mucus. Worms can make gurgling noises underground when disturbed as a result of the worm moving through its lubricated tunnels. They also work as biological "pistons' forcing air through the tunnels as they move. Thus earthworm activity aerates and mixes the soil, and is constructive to mineralization and nutrient uptake by vegetation. Certain species of earthworm come to the surface and graze on the higher concentrations of organic matter present there, mixing it with the mineral soil. Because a high level of organic matter mixing is associated with soil fertility, an abundance of earthworms is beneficial to the organic gardener. In fact as long ago as 1881 Charles Darwin wrote: It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures


The major benefits of earthworm activities to soil fertility can be summarized as:
  • Biological. In many soils, earthworms play a major role in converting large pieces of organic matter (e.g. dead leaves) into rich humus, and thus improving soil fertility. This is achieved by the worm's actions of pulling down below any organic matter deposited on the dried dirt, such as leaf fall or manure, either for food or when it needs to plug its burrow. Once in the burrow, the worm will shred the leaf and partially digest it, then mingle it with the earth by saturating it with intestinal secretions. Worm casts (see below) can contain 40% more humus than the top 6" of soil in which the worm is living.
  • Chemical. As well as dead organic matter, the earthworm also ingests any other soil particles that are small enough—including stones up to 1/20 of an inch (1.25mm) across—into its gizzard wherein minute fragments of grit grind everything into a fine paste which is then digested in the stomach. When the worm excretes this in the form of casts which are deposited on the surface or deeper in the soil, minerals and plant nutrients are made available in an accessible form. Investigations in the US show that fresh earthworm casts are 5 times richer in available nitrogen, 7 times richer in available phosphates and 11 times richer in available potash than the surrounding upper 6 inches (150 mm) of soil. In conditions where there is plenty of available humus, the weight of casts produced may be greater than 4.5 kg (10 lb) per worm per year, in itself an indicator of why it pays the gardener or farmer to keep worm populations high.
  • Physical. By its burrowing actions, the earthworm is of great value in keeping the soil structure open, creating a multitude of channels which allow the processes of both aeration and drainage to occur. Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison points out that by sliding in their tunnels, earthworms "act as an innumerable army of pistons pumping air in and out of the soils on a 24 hour cycle (more rapidly at night)" . Thus the earthworm not only creates passages for air and water to traverse, but is itself a vital component in the living biosystem that is healthy soil.
The earthworm's existence cannot be taken for granted. Dr. W. E. Shewell Cooper observed "tremendous numerical differences between adjacent gardens" (Soil, Humus And Health), and worm populations are affected by a host of environmental factors, many of which can be influenced by good management practices on the part of the gardener or farmer.
Darwin estimated that arable land contains up to 53,000 worms per acre (13/m²), but more recent research from Rothamsted Experimental Station has produced figures suggesting that even poor soil may support 250,000/acre (62/m²), whilst rich fertile farmland may have up to 1,750,000/acre (432/m²), meaning that the weight of earthworms beneath the farmer's soil could be greater than that of his livestock upon its surface. One thing is certain however: rich, fertile soil that is cared for organically and well-fed and husbanded by its steward will reap its reward in a healthy worm population, whilst denuded, overworked, and eroded land will almost certainly contain fewer, scrawny, undernourished specimens.

Earthworms as invasive species

North America

A total of approximately 182 earthworm taxa in 12 families are reported from America north of Mexico, i.e., USA & Canada, of which 60 (ca. 33%) are exotic/introduced. Only two genera of Lumbricid earthworms are indigenous to North America while introduced genera have spread to areas where earthworms did not formerly exist, especially in the north where forest development relies on a large amount of undecayed leaf matter. When worms decompose that leaf layer, the ecology may shift making the habitat unsurvivable for certain species of trees, ferns and wildflowers. Currently there is no economically feasible method for controlling invasive earthworms in forests. Earthworms normally spread slowly, but can be quickly introduced by human activities such as construction earthmoving, or by fishermen releasing bait, or by plantings from other areas.


Australia has 650 known species of native earthworm that survive in both rich and in nutrient-poor conditions where they may be sensitive to changes in the environment. Introduced species are commonly found in agricultural environments along with persistent natives. Most of the 75 or so exotics have been accidentally introduced into Australia. The total species numbers are predicted to exceed 2,000.

Special habitats

While, as the name earthworm suggests, the main habitat of earthworms is in soil, the situation is more complicated than that. The brandling worm Eisenia fetida lives in decaying plant matter and manure. Arctiostrotus vancouverensis from Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula is generally found in decaying conifer logs or in extremely acidic humus. Aporrectodea limicola and Sparganophilus and several others are found in mud in streams. Some species are arborial. Even in the soil species, there are special habitats, such as soils derived from serpentine which have an earthworm fauna of their own.


Earthworms are classified into three main ecophysiological categories: (1) epigeic, or leaf litter/compost dwelling worms, e.g. Eisenia fetida; (2) endogeic, or worms that live in the main soil horizon; and (3) anecic worms that construct permanent deep burrows through which they visit the surface to obtain plant material for food, e.g. Lumbricus terrestris. Individual authors have sometimes considered worms as intermediate between categories, e.g Lumbricus rubellus (epigeic/endogeic).
Earthworm populations depend on both physical and chemical properties of the soil, such as soil temperature, moisture, pH, salts, aeration and texture, as well as available food, and the ability of the species to reproduce and disperse. One of the most important environmental factors is pH, but earthworms vary in their preferences. Most earthworms favor neutral to slightly acidic soil. However, Lumbricus terrestris are still present in a pH of 5.4 and Dendrobaena octaedra at a pH of 4.3 and some Megascolecidae are present in extremely acid humic soils. Soil pH may also influence the numbers of worms that go into diapause. The more acid the soil, the sooner worms go into diapause, and remain in diapause the longest time at a pH of 6.4.
Earthworms form the base of many food chains. They are preyed upon by many species of birds, e.g. starlings, thrushes, gulls, crows, and both European Robins and American Robins. Some snakes feed on them and mammals such as bears, foxes, hedgehogs and moles eat many earthworms as well. Earthworms are also eaten by many invertebrates such as ground beetles and other beetles, snails, slugs. Earthworms have many internal parasites including Protozoa, Platyhelminthes, Nematodes. They are found in many parts of earthworms' bodies such as blood, seminal vesicles, coelom, intestine, or in the cocoons.
The application of chemical fertilizers, sprays and dusts can have a disastrous effect on earthworm populations. Nitrogenous fertilizers tend to create acid conditions, which are fatal to the worms, and often dead specimens are to be found on the surface following the application of substances like DDT, lime sulphur and lead arsenate. In Australia, the use of superphosphate on pastures almost completely wiped out the giant Gippsland earthworm.
Therefore, the most reliable way to maintain or increase the levels of worm population in the soil is to avoid the application of artificial chemicals. Adding organic matter, preferably as a surface mulch, on a regular basis will provide them with their food and nutrient requirements, and also creates the optimum conditions of heat (cooler in summer and warmer in winter) and moisture to stimulate their activity.
A recent threat to earthworm populations in the UK is the New Zealand Flatworm (Artiposthia triangulata), which feeds upon the earthworm, but in the UK has no natural predator itself. At present sightings of the New Zealand flatworm have been mainly localised, but this is no reason for complacency as it has spread extensively since its introduction in 1960 through contaminated soil and plant pots. Any sightings of the flatworm should be reported to the Scottish Crop Research Institute, which is monitoring its spread.

Economic impact

Various species of worms are used in vermiculture, the practice of feeding organic waste to earthworms to decompose (digest) it, a form of composting by the use of worms. These are usually Eisenia fetida (or its close relative Eisenia andrei) or the Brandling worm, also known as the Tiger worm or Red Wiggler, and are distinct from soil-dwelling earthworms.
Earthworms are sold all over the world. The earthworm market is sizable. According to Doug Collicut (see "Nightcrawler" link below), "In 1980, 370 million worms were exported from Canada, with a Canadian export value of $13 million and an American retail value of $54 million."
Earthworms are also sometimes sold as food for human consumption. Noke is a culinary term used by the Māori of New Zealand to refer to earthworms which are considered delicacies.
A report on biodiversity published by the Irish Government in May 2008 estimated the activities of the earthworm to be worth a minimum of €723 millon per annum to Irish agriculture.

Taxonomy and main geographic origins of earthworms

Main families :


Further reading

Edwards, Clive A. (Ed.) Earthworm Ecology. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2004. Second revised edition. ISBN 084931819X
Lee, Keneth E. Earthworms: Their Ecology and Relationships with Soils and Land Use. Academic Press. Sydney, 1985. ISBN 0-12-440860-5
Stewart, Amy. The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 2004. ISBN 1-56512-337-9

See also

earthworms in Arabic: دودة الأرض
earthworms in Guarani: Sevo'i
earthworms in Aymara: Sillq'u
earthworms in Min Nan: Tō͘-kún
earthworms in Czech: Žížaly
earthworms in Welsh: Abwydyn
earthworms in Danish: Regnorm
earthworms in German: Regenwürmer
earthworms in Spanish: Lumbricidae
earthworms in Esperanto: Tervermo
earthworms in French: Lumbricina
earthworms in Galician: Miñoca
earthworms in Croatian: Gujavice
earthworms in Hebrew: תולעי אדמה
earthworms in Hungarian: Lumbricina
earthworms in Min Dong Chinese: Gàu-ūng
earthworms in Dutch: Regenwormen
earthworms in Japanese: ミミズ
earthworms in Panjabi: ਗੰਡੋਇਆ ਖਾਦ
earthworms in Polish: Dżdżownica
earthworms in Portuguese: Minhoca
earthworms in Quechua: Llawq'a
earthworms in Slovak: Dážďovky
earthworms in Swedish: Daggmask
earthworms in Tagalog: Bulateng lupa
earthworms in Vietnamese: Giun đất
earthworms in Chinese: 蚯蚓
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