Yikes! It’s a Giant Earthworm!

54-giant-worm-long-cropI 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 theĀ  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.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Now, honestly, given a choice between popularizing biodiversity of E. Kalimantan with giant roaches (universal Ick!!! factor- only reminds people of their grimy apartments of the student years) or giant earthworms (partial Ick factor, mostly squeamish females; males will wonder how big a fish could be caught with it….), wouldn’t the TNC be better off with the worms? Get all the worms, including this big one, the little ones that have camo-pattern backs and crawl around on leaves in Borneo rain forests… there is a tremendous untapped diversity there.

    1. Hi Sam. Thanks again for your input. I will do my best to promote earth worm conservation on Borneo. Not sure yet how to go about it – we are more used to furry creatures like orangutans. For starters, what can you tell us about the worms of Borneo? Can we estimate how many species have been described so far? Are there some really unusual ones, with strange morphologies or ecologies? I would like to hear your stories.

  2. This is definitely an interesting discovery, although it does make me go “ewww” a bit. But, like you say, it underscores all that is still unknown and undiscovered about the forests of Indonesia. Imagine all the wonders we’ve yet discovered? Keep up the good fight!

  3. We just got back from Ecuador and encountered our own giant earthworm in the cloud forest near Mindo. The one we saw was just a big and did make us go “ewww” a bit too. I had no idea something like that existed. The pictures have made other peoples skin crawl a bit but everyone was fascinated by it. There is biodiversity everywhere!

    1. Thanks. I like some of those species ranges like Dichogaster annae which is known from Cameroon and Java. That is quite a disjunct distribution range.

      Not sure how this helps with the id of our worm, but it surely shows how rich and presumably large enigmatic this group of species is.



  4. I have heard that there is (or was?) a giant earthworm species in the Willamette valley; I used to go looking for signs of it in my parent’s yard growing up (mostly because I liked to go fishing with my grandfather) I never found a giant earthworm, but there were often unexplained “worm tunnels” (I don’t know if that is a technical term or not) in their yard that were larger than the night crawlers that we caught to fish with but smaller than any rodent or tunnel spider hole that I would occasionally come across. Any ideas?

  5. I do believe this is a Kinabalu giant earthworm, Boreno is home to a giant earthworm and a giant red leech which feeds on said earthworms. That is as much as I know, not an expert.

  6. Dear Erik Wow … This is a large earthworm. I was amazed to see it. I think earthworms are an important component in the forgotten ecosystem conservation activities. whereas changes in earthworm communities can impact on the ecosystem changes in the soil which ultimately also affect the ecosystem on top. so, they should get the attention like other animals.

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