Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Giant Palouse Earthworm, Discovered

I lived for three years in Moscow, Idaho, and never heard talk of the giant Palouse earthworm.

Maybe I didn’t travel in the right circles. Maybe, perchance, someone in my circle of friends did try to start off a conversation by saying “You know, there’s a legend around here about giant, pale, bulbous earthworms that smell like lilies, spit at attackers and can grow to be three feet long,” and I just brushed them off as, well, weirdos. The oddest wildlife encounter I had in the area came on a night I was strolling alone on the Bill Chipman Trail between Moscow and neighboring Pullman, Washington, and I was startled by a porcupine strolling the opposite direction.

I suppose, if someone ever tried to tell me about the worm and I laughed at them or brushed them off as a loony, I should eat crow now.

Maybe the worms can eat it for me.

For scientists at the University of Idaho – my proud alma mater, at least for the BA degree – announced earlier this year that they’d discovered specimens of the legendary worm, albeit not of the three-foot variety. They don’t appear to smell like lilies. They don’t appear to spit. But they are longish, white, translucent. Eerie enough to be stuff of legend if you ask me.

So what now, is the big question. You found the worms. Do we then walk away from the discovery, moon-landing like, and check it off as s Scientific Thing Accomplished, Do Not Revisit? I don’t know. I suppose since there are people out there trying to find such worms, there are people – likely the same ones – willing to continue studying them once they’re discovered. And I’m good with that. I kind of like the idea of the University of Idaho becoming a worldwide center for worm research and worm researchers. Perhaps they can find a way to communicate with these slimy but highly intelligent beasts; maybe convince them to develop snorkels out of blades of grass or somesuch so they don’t have to squirm out of the grass and be mucked or eaten by birds when the rain falls and fills their tunnels. Such research would stop unsettling thoughts on my part: Last Sunday, as I walked to church and tried not to step on the worms on the sidewalk, I thought, “I wonder what worm jerky would taste like?” Please stop me, science, from thinking such thoughts again.

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