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Sunday, May 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scientist digs up a rare giant Palouse earthworm

The Associated Press

PALOUSE, Whitman County — Pity the poor robin that latches onto one of these worms.

A yard long and as big around as a man's pinkie finger, the giant Palouse earthworm is albino-pale, can burrow 15 feet deep and smells like a lily.

The recent discovery of one of the scarce giants has energized entomologists and soil scientists, who fear it may be near extinction.

"It was very exciting. Just to find something we thought, perhaps, was gone is a great thing," said University of Idaho soils scientist Jodi Johnson-Maynard.

The native giant earthworms have been found by scientists only four times since the 1970s. None had been seen since the 1980s until Idaho graduate student Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon dug one up while studying other earthworm species in May 2005.

It wasn't until January that worm experts confirmed she had found Driloleirus americanus, the giant Palouse earthworm.

"I wasn't looking specifically for it. I was hoping it was around," she said.

Little is known about the giant worms: how many there are, where they live, how they behave, or why they are so scarce.

Scientists aren't even sure how big they get. Reports of 3-foot-long earthworms come from before the Palouse region of Eastern Washington was carpeted by wheat and other crops more than a century ago, Johnson-Maynard said.

Specimens found in modern times have been 18 inches or less. A giant worm in Australia can reach 10 feet.

Sanchez-de Leon thinks the 6-inch-long version she found — a little longer and fatter than a common nightcrawler earthworm — might be a young adult.

One reason so little is known about the giant earthworms is, well, they're worms.

Unlike the celebration touched off by last year's sighting in Arkansas of the ivory-billed woodpecker — a bird not seen in 60 years and thought to be extinct — the giant earthworm Sanchez-de Leon found last year already has been consigned to a jar of formaldehyde.

"Realistically, the giant Palouse earthworm is a lot less charismatic than a giant woodpecker," said James "Ding" Johnson, head of the University of Idaho's Department of Plant, Soil and Entomology Sciences.

There is urgency to find more Palouse giants because earthworms play an important part in the health of soil and plants, the scientists said.

"Earthworms are considered nature's tillers. They're extremely important for soil quality and from the standpoint of managing to grow plants better," said Ann Kennedy, a Washington State University soil scientist.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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