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Photo: monster worm is less than a monster

Some places have Loch Ness and Bigfoot, but the Palouse prairie of the western United States has the giant Palouse earthworm. Reported to stretch 3 feet long, spit, and—even more strangely—smell like lilies, the earthworm has become apart of the region’s folklore and has only been seen a few times since the 1980s leading to concerns that it was gravely endangered and maybe even extinct.

However, last month Shan Xu, a University of Idaho graduate student studying soil science, and Karl Umiker, a research support scientist, dug up two strange earthworms on March 27. They were identified as Palouse earthworms (Driloleirus americanus) by earthworm-expert Sam James this month, though the specimens were not 3 feet long; they did not spit; nor did they smell like lilies.

Still, the worms are big for the area: the adult runs about 7 inches relaxed and nears 10 inches when stretched out, but no-where near the reported 3 feet (36 inches). They are transparent and their organs are visible through their bodies.

Although a 3-foot-long worm may sound difficult to believe, there are number of earthworms around the world that are bigger. The giant Gippsland earthworm from Australia reaches 3 meters in length (9.8 feet or 117 inches).

Despite some likely exaggerations, the Palouse earthworms remain largely mysterious denizens of the underground.

“We are beginning to gain some understanding about where we are likely to find the giant Palouse earthworm, and how much we have to learn about them,” University of Idaho soil scientist Jodi Johnson-Maynard said in a press release. The juvenile earthworm has been sent to Russia to have its DNA taken for future identification.

The Palouse earthworm is currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, although the species hasn’t been assessed for over a decade. The species’ native habitat, the Palouse prairie, has been almost entirely converted to agriculture with less than one percent of native prairie lands surviving today. Scientists believe that many native earthworms in the US struggle to survive due to intensive agriculture as well as competition with invasive species.

Conservation groups sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Palouse earthworm under the Endangered Species Act in 2006. The petition was rejected due to a lack of information on the species. These two new specimens may represent a turning-point for the clearly rare, but not so big after all, Palouse earthworm.

An adult giant Palouse earthworm stretches to its full length of 10 to 12 inches in a University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences laboratory April 12. University of Idaho/Kelly Weaver photo.

A juvenile, top, and an adult giant Palouse earthworm are pictured in a University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences laboratory April 12. University of Idaho/Kelly Weaver photo.

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