Jumping Worms

June 17, 2018 lawanda Newspaper Columns


Most gardeners know that earthworms in a garden are an indicator of healthy soil.  In fact, worm castings (a/k/a poop) are one of the best fertilizers for a garden.  You can buy bags of the stuff and it isn’t disgusting or smelly.  It looks like coffee grounds. 

      But there’s a new worm in town and it’s a bad guy.  This one has the potential to decimate home landscapes, parks, farm fields and forests.  It goes by several names:  jumping worm, Alabama jumper, crazy worm, and snake worm.

      The problem with jumping worms is that they are extremely voracious in eating soil organic matter that plants, fungi and bacteria need for nutrients, and then pooping it out, turning the soil into grainy, dry worm castings.  Although some worm castings are good in soils, castings alone won’t support healthy plants.  Jumping worms also damage roots of plants.   In wooded areas, understory plants die off, damaging the entire forest ecosystem.  In residential areas, jumping worms harm ornamental plantings, food plants and turf.

      Jumping worms are native to Japan and the Korean peninsula and were first discovered in Wisconsin in 2013.  They probably arrived in mulch, soil, plants, or the root balls of trees shipped to a nursery. 

      There is no mistaking this worm when you see it.  Or touch it anyway.  They thrash and jump around vigorously when touched, even jumping into the air.  To make the nightmare worse, they sometimes shed their tails in defense.

      Jumping worms are about the same size as any other earthworm, one to five inches, sometimes as long as eight inches.  But they look a bit different from other earthworms found in Wisconsin.  The narrow band around the jumping worm’s body, called the clitellum, is cloudy white and smooth and completely circles the body.  On other worms the clitellum is raised and doesn’t go all the way around.  So you could remember that, or if you see one you could just touch it to see if it jumps. 

      What you won’t see is just one jumping worm.  There are always a bunch of them writhing around.  You also won’t find them when digging deep underground.  They stay near the soil surface to do their dastardly deeds.

      Jumping worms reproduce quickly.  They don’t need a partner; they can reproduce on their own without mating.  So one worm inadvertently transported in a potted plant can begin a whole new population when it finds itself in a new location.  Although the worms don’t survive our Wisconsin winters, they lay plenty of eggs in protective cocoons too small to see with the naked eye and those cocoons do survive the cold. 

      Worms reach maturity within 60 days of hatching, and you’ll begin to see them in late June.  Sixty days later, they in turn can lay new eggs. 

      It is important to only use, sell, plant, purchase or trade landscape and gardening materials and plants that appear to be free of jumping worms.  But if you do spot jumping worms, please report them to the DNR by emailing invasive.species@wi.gov or to Wisconsin First Detector Network by uploading a photo to fyi.uwex.edu/wifdn/get-involved/report-invasive-species.


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