Tiny, wriggling horrors are hatching right now, under our feet, across the country.
No, not the billions of Brood X cicadas emerging throughout the eastern US. I’m talking instead about baby invasive “crazy worms” that thrash through garden, farm, city, and forest soil, growing to 3 to 6 inches in length, sucking up nutrients, and transforming rich leaf litter into coarse droppings. All while laying nearly 20 hardy worm cocoons a month, without needing a mate.
Variously known as jumping worms, snake worms, Alabama jumpers, and Jersey wrigglers, common Amynthas species are a super-powered version of the more familiar, squishy languidness of the garden-variety European earthworms (whose genus name, Lumbricus, itself sounds plodding). And their rapid spread into new areas has led to a surge of concern about these worms.
This vigorous lifestyle can quickly lead to full-blown infestations — and decimated topsoil. Perhaps it’s no wonder jumping worms recently have been invading the internet, too.
“You can see hundreds of them massing together, eliciting squeals of either horror or delight,” says Bernie Williams, a plant pest and disease expert at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, who has been studying worms for some 20 years (“too many years”). Jumping worms, of the genus Amynthas, have now been spotted in more than half of US states and at least one Canadian province.
Amynthas worms raise not only the frequent disgust of gardeners, but also serious concern for land management experts. By churning through such high volumes of surface mulch and litter (and not allowing it to decompose more naturally into the soil), these worms seem to tie up plant-friendly nutrients into their dry castings, which are then easily washed away. They can physically undermine plants by loosening the top layer of soil — especially when hundreds of them are at work — and make it less able to retain moisture. They also seem to eradicate European earthworms, which help mix and aerate healthy soil, wherever they arrive.
So, it’s panic time, right?
It turns out we know very little about these annelid invaders beyond their self-fertilizing fecundity, physical vigor, and prolific digestive habits. It is true that they are changing the landscapes they enter, but some researchers say that while we should work to control jumping worms, we also need to learn more about them — and, yes, learn how we can live with them, too.