I know almost nothing about earthworms. They are the things that crawl through dad’s vegetable patch, right? Do I want to know more? Hmmm, I am not sure.
But the photo of a 1.5 meter (5 foot) worm that our East Kalimantan staff sent me (at left) was something else. That worm needed to be checked out.
I searched the Internet for “giant earthworms” and indeed some species of that size showed up. But what species is the one that we found? Two earthworm specialists were willing to help me.
They kindly wrote how to identify the species. Their first advice was to look for the clitellum…um, I beg your pardon?
So, I had to look that one up first. “If the clitellum begins on the 14th segment, and you can detect setae (author’s note: huh?) around each segment, then it will likely be a member of the Pheretima-group.”
I scrutinized the photo, counted segments and convinced myself there were indeed setae. So, there you go, that should narrow it down.
But after I had convinced myself that it was indeed a worm from the Pheretima-group, I found out that this still left me with 920 species to choose from.
That sounds bad, but it could be worse. As one specialist said: “If it is a Moniligastridae, the identification process will be longer and harder because no work has been done on this family in many many decades.”
Pffft! Give me mammals or birds anytime.
Anyway, ignoring the fact that I am a complete imbecile when it comes to earthworm identification, it is pretty cool to find such species in the forests of Borneo. Both earthworm specialists suggested that the species might well be new to science, because so little is known about them (I didn’t have the guts to tell them that we let the specimen escape).
It also reconfirms the tremendous evolutionary richness of these forests, and how much there is still learn about them.
And the cool thing is that it can help us in our conservation work. The Nature Conservancy got a lot of mileage out of a new species of giant cockroach in East Kalimantan’s limestone areas that we found a few years ago. And that cockroach has helped focus political attention, which is one of the reasons we are now making progress in conserving this incredibly beautiful and important area.
So, bring on those wild and wonderful creatures and let them speak for themselves. In the end it is their story — not ours — that makes us work so hard for nature’s sake.
(Author’s note: Thanks to Agus Heriyanto and Oven Rubeny for supplying the impetus and the photo for this story, and thanks to Sam James of the University of Kansas and Emma Sherlock at the British Natural History Museum for their taxonomic help.)