SPOKANE — Two living specimens of the legendary giant Palouse earthworm have been captured for the first time in two decades in what represents a significant discovery of a creature that has achieved a mythic status in the area.
The giant Palouse earthworm has fascinated scientists for decades after long being written off as an extinct creature. Reports suggested that the worms had a penchant for spitting and smelled like lilies, further enhancing the myth of the earthworm in the agricultural Palouse region on the Washington-Idaho border.
They aren’t even that giant.
“One of my colleagues suggested we rename it the ‘larger-than average Palouse earthworm,’ ” said University of Idaho soil scientist Jodi Johnson-Maynard in Moscow, Idaho, who has been leading the search.
While they had been thought to grow to 3 feet long, the adult worm measured about 10 or 12 inches fully extended, while the juvenile was 6 or 7 inches.
The worms are translucent, allowing internal organs to appear. They have pink heads and bulbous tails. The adult has a yellowish band behind the head.
The specimens were found March 27 by Shan Xu, an Idaho student, and Karl Umiker, a research support scientist. They also found three earthworm cocoons, two of which have hatched and appear to also be giant Palouse earthworms.
Most earthworms found in the Northwest originated in Europe, arriving on plants or in soil shipped to the New World. The giant Palouse earthworm is one of the few native species.
The Palouse earthworm was first reported to the scientific world in 1897. Massive agricultural development soon consumed nearly all of the unique Palouse Prairie — a seemingly endless ocean of steep, silty dunes — and appeared to deal a fatal blow to the worm.
In the late 1980s, University of Idaho scientist James Johnson found two worms in a forest near Moscow. They were the last living specimens found until now.
The worms were considered extinct until 2005, when Idaho graduate student Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon found a specimen near Albion. But that worm had been cut nearly in half as she was digging a hole.