4 min read

Digging into the Drilosphere

The World of Worms
A common sight on rainy days. Photo by David Lukas

Have you ever wondered why sidewalks and the ground are littered with earthworms on rainy days?

We hear a lot about earthworms—and how they are good for our gardens—so today we're going to dig deeper and learn a bit more.

Fun Fact: Earthworms don't come to the surface on rainy days because they're drowning in their burrows! Earthworms absorb oxygen through their wet skin rather than through lungs, so they can actually survive in water for weeks if there's enough oxygen in it.

We have around 180 species of earthworms in North America. Most live in the soil, but we also have earthworms that live in rotting logs, in trees, in water, in mud, and even on the seashore.

Earthworms typically live in soil, but there are many exceptions. Photo by Patricia Maine Degrave from Pixabay

Ultimately, earthworms are one of our most important soil organisms. There can be nearly 2 million earthworms per acre in fertile soils, and even in poor soils there are still hundreds of thousands.

bird feeding worms to babies
Earthworms are an important food for many animals. Photo by G.C. from Pixabay

Charles Darwin spent 40 years of his life studying earthworms and calculated that, on an acre of land, worms can produce 18 tons of worm castings (poop!) per year. However, more recent calculations have revealed that worms actually contribute well over 5000 tons (per acre) each year, which means they are having an immense impact on the soil.

earthworm castings
Earthworms produce prodigious amounts of poop loaded with vital nutrients. Photo by Hans from Pixabay

This matters because vast areas of North America had no earthworms when the massive icefields of the Pleistocene melted 10,000 years ago. Then European settlers introduced exotic earthworms that became superabundant and started altering native ecosystems.

Pleistocene glaciation in North America
Native earthworms were wiped out in areas covered by Pleistocene icefields (in blue).

Thirty percent of the earthworm species now found in North America are introduced.

Many (if not all!) of the earthworms we see on a regular basis are introduced species. Photo by S W from Pixabay

The primary impact of worms is that they devour organic matter and mix the leftover bits into the soil. Soil that has been affected by earthworm secretions, burrows, and poop is called the "drilosphere," and this is an area where microbial communities and nutrient pathways are incredibly prolific.

earthworm closeup
Secretions that earthworm use to keep their skin moist also lines their burrows and contributes to the drilosphere. Photo by David Lukas

In a garden setting, this mixing and enriching of soil is beneficial, but in a native ecosystem something else can happen.

Native ecosystems are often built around a steady accumulation of leaf litter on the ground. This leaf litter provides homes and supports food webs for nesting birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and countless invertebrates.

fallen leaves
Accumulated leaves are a vital part of a healthy forest ecosystem. Photo by David Lukas

But, when earthworms are introduced, or when nonnative earthworms take over, they quickly consume this layer of accumulated leaves, leaving behind exposed soil surfaces and turning soft, spongy ground into compacted soils.

denuded forest floor
Earthworms can turn a forest floor of green plants and flowers into a desert. Photo by efes from Pixabay

Earthworms have significant impacts on our soils, and it's a mixed bag. Whenever you introduce trillions and trillions of organisms to a new environment you know there are going to be big changes, yet earthworms have become so common and familiar that most of us never think about these impacts.

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