Field of Science

A Place for Worms

When we think of endangered species, we tend to focus on the charismatic vertebrates, such as pandas, parrots, tigers or turtles. But endangered species may come from all walks, crawls or wriggles of life. Have you ever considered, for instance, the plight of endangered earthworms?

An unidentified species of Glossodrilus, copyright Thibaud Decaens.


Glossodrilus is a genus of earthworms found in tropical and subtropical regions of Central and South America. They are mostly fairly small as earthworms go, averaging only a few centimetres long and one or two millimetres in diameter. The largest, G. oliveirai from Brazil's Roraima State and Guyana, is about 25 centimetres long; the smallest, G. tico from Roraima and Venezuela, is less than two centimetres in length. Most species lack pigmentation, meaning that they appear greyish from the colour of their gut contents. A single species, G. freitasi from Amapá State in Brazil, is a bright violet in colour. Other diagnostic features of the genus include: eight setae per segment, arranged in regular series; a pair of (or sometimes one) calciferous glands sitting above the oesophagus in segments XI to XII; two or three pairs of lateral hearts in segments VII to IX, and two pairs of intestinal hearts in X and XI; and a pair of testes in segment XI. Glossodrilus is distinguished from a closely related earthworm genus, Glossoscolex, by the absent of a pair of muscular copulatory chambers associated with the male ducts in the latter genus (Righi 1996).

Over sixty species have been assigned to Glossodrilus; as is usual with earthworms, they are mostly distinguished by internal characters such as features of the reproductive systems. They are most diverse in upland regions, with many species inhabiting high rain forest. A few species in the northernmost or southernmost parts of the genus' range inhabit secondary grasslands. Glossodrilus species are conspicuous by their absence in the Brazilian central plateau, and only infrequently present in lowland Amazonia (Righi 1996).

And this is where the question of conservation comes in. You see, the greater number of Glossodrilus species are known only from a very restricted area (Lavelle & Lapied 2003). Part of this may be an artefact of sampling: in more recent decades, our understanding of South American earthworm diversity has been heavily shaped by one researcher, Gilberto Righi of the Universidade de São Paulo (I referred to him briefly in an earlier post on Amazonian earthworms), and we know little of areas where Righi did not collect specimens himself or from where he did not receive specimens supplied by ecological surveys. Nevertheless, sampling has probably been extensive enough to expect that the low number of shared species between different regions will hold firm at the broad scale at least. Most Glossodrilus species (and other native South American earthworms) are dependent on old-growth habitats; as land is cleared for farming, forestry and the like, exotic and invasive earthworm species take over. It would be all to easily for the little Glossodrilus to find themselves homeless, and slip into extinction without any to mark their passing.

REFERENCES

Lavelle, P., & E. Lapied. 2003. Endangered earthworms of Amazonia: an homage to Gilberto Righi. Pedobiologia 47: 419–427.

Righi, G. 1996. Colombian earthworms. Studies on Tropical Andean Ecosystems 4: 485–607.

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