Adult Amynthas agrestis (top) and Amynthas tokioensis (bottom) are two types of invasive jumping worms found in Dane County, Wis. Photo by Marie Johnston, UW–Madison Department of Soil Science and Arboretum.

Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat! The jumping worms of Dane County

By Don “Doc” Sanders

You may jump to the conclusion that the following story is a thinly veiled reimagining of Mark Twain’s 1865 short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Twain’s tale has the character Jim Smiley using a frog as a source of income in a gold mining camp at Angel’s Camp in California. Smiley had caught the frog and named it Dan’l Webster.

He taught Ol’ Dan’l to jump and catch flies. Dan’l would do this on command. If you know anything about frog anatomy, frogs have a long tongue that is attached from the front of their lower jaw. This gives them a greater reach when flicking for flies. Smiley used this to his advantage, wagering vulnerable, naive miners how high and far Ol’ Dan’l could jump to catch a fly. But Smiley ends up getting tricked himself. The story appeared more about taking advantage of a bunch of suckers rather than being about a jumping frog.

I share this as an introduction to a true modern-day story, not about jumping frogs, but jumping earthworms. That’s right, earthworms! That jump! Here are the details, and there is no wagering involved. I’ll let you keep your money.

Most everyone in agriculture links earthworms with improving soil health. They burrow tunnels, aerating the soil as they go. Their castings, or feces, improve soil fertility. Believe it or not, I once had a dairy client that had several barrels of earthworms producing castings that he used for fertilizer. At the time, I thought he was a little cuckoo. But silly me!

More than 7,000 species of earthworms crawl on planet earth. Not all earthworms, however, are positive contributors to soil health. Asian jumping earthworms are, in fact, an invasive species of earthworm (Amynthas agrestis). Jumping earthworms commonly go by names like Alabama jumpers, Jersey wrigglers, snake worms, even crazy snake worms.

When these earthworms are disturbed in their underground hiding spots, they thrash about and jump up to a foot in the air. They can shed their tails to aid in their escape. Anatomically, earthworms have five or more heart pairs. Just so long as they have a heart pair remaining, these Alabama jumpers or crazy snake worms will survive even if they lose a portion of their hearts or body.

Unlike the positive contribution of common earthworms in the Midwest, Alabama jumpers, or whatever moniker you hang on them, are an invasive species that damage the soil and ecosystem. They can quickly transform fertile soil into dry granular pellets with a texture similar to discarded coffee grounds.

Alabama jumpers have been detected only in the southern United States. That is, until a month or so ago, when an Alabama jumper was identified in mulch at a city compost site just outside Madison, Wis. Keep in mind, there have been no native earthworms in Wisconsin since the last glacier passed through 500,000 years ago.

You may be aware that the major glacier in Northwest Ohio was the Wisconsin glacier. It created the high fertility soils and underground water table commonly found in this area. Madison city officials quarantined their compost site, even though only one Alabama jumper had been detected. This earthworm, identified as an Annelid species, is reported to be rapidly spreading across the U.S. with little notice from the public or agronomic experts.

Alabama jumpers are spread inadvertently as they form tiny, undetected cocoons in soil and mulch. It appears that a surveillance plan should be developed and implemented on top soil and mulch sold across the country due to the potentially adverse effects these varmints can cause to soil fertility.

And I don’t think I’m jumping to conclusions on that.

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