an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, thank I’ll go and eat worms

Long ones short ones fat ones skinny ones

Worms that squiggle and squirm

That’s called a kids’ song, or a campfire song, and in some versions the words are different, but that’s how I learned it in the wolf cubs as an eight-year-old, and the words often come back to me when, as quite often happens, I find that nobody loves me and everybody hates me. This is the case at present so I was heartened by watching a doco this morning on worms, and I thought I’d cheer myself by writing about them rather than eating them.

I’m talking earthworms here, just to narrow things down. The longest worm that we know of (not an earthworm) is the bootlace worm, Lineus longissimus, of the phylum Nemertea, specimens of which grow as long as 55 metres – though they’re stretchy, so that might be cheating. As for earthworms, Australia’s regarded as a hotspot of wormy diversity, according to wormologists, with the giant Gippsland earthworm, Megascolides australis, coming in as one of the biggest at up to 3 metres, and over an inch in diameter. You could base more than a couple of hefty meals on a critter that size, but sadly they’re a threatened species, another casualty of human encroachment on habitat. In fact, a great many of Australia’s 1000 or so known native earthworm species are in the same position, but for obvious reasons they don’t get the same attention as bilbies and potoroos.

As every gardener knows, worms are much valued for the way they transform the soil, providing new opportunities for the growth and development of plants. They also aerate the soil – letting in air, releasing carbon dioxide – with their burrowing activities. They don’t simply become two if they’re cut in half, though they can regenerate a chopped-off tail. They’re delicate and can be easily broken if pulled at, and in fact they have tiny gripping hairs, called setae, all over their bodies which makes them especially hard to pull out of the ground, as if you’d want to. Like me, they’re hermaphrodites (I think that’s why everybody hates me) and they breed by stretching alongside each other and exchanging sperm, a process that often lasts for many hours.

Okay, I’m not a hermaphrodite, but I may as well be, and a two-headed one at that.

Worms make great food for birds, platypuses and the occasional intrepid toddler, and their excreta, aka castings, the end-product of incessant organic digestion, is taken up by plants, and is full of such goodies as phosphorus, nitrogen, calcium and magnesium. They like and need moisture, and in fact the giant earthworm can be detected by the underground squelching and gurgling created by their activities.

The basic worm anatomical structure, whether you’re talking land or sea, has been around a very long time, and obviously has proved very effective and enduring. It’s believed that the first-ever vertebrate creature (according to current knowledge), the ocean-living chordate Pikaia gracilens, incorporated the beginnings of a backbone into its worm-like body some 500 million years ago. That makes worm-eating a form of cannibalism. In fact, eating itself is a form of cannibalism and we really should stop.

Let’s look at how earthworms get around. The direction of their movement is a response to light and to soil chemistry as it impacts on skin cells. They move by expanding and contracting their muscles, anchoring themselves as they go with their setae, which they put out and retract as they go. Skin secretions help to bind the soil around them, easing their burrowing passage. Like us, they move a lot more sluggishly (probably not a good choice of words) in the cold weather.

So, that’s it for worms, for now. I’ve opened a few cans of them in my time, but I’ve always been reluctant to examine the contents. See how I’ve changed.

a dish of mopane worms - a fave from Zimbabwe

a dish of mopane worms – a fave from Zimbabwe

Written by stewart henderson

January 30, 2013 at 10:09 am