Biologists have long wondered at the capabilities of earthworms. When he wasn’t crafting foundational theories of modern biology, Charles Darwin discovered that earthworms assist plant growth by aerating and turning over soil. Previously derided as pests, his work helped to shed light on the dark, dirty, essential role of these silent tillers of the earth. Earthworms spend most of their lives converting organic matter into compost. They play an important role in nutrient cycling, as the castings that they leave behind are rich in important nutrients like phosphorus and calcium.
Our sunny, dry surface world is not safe for these subterranean beasts. Earthworms are not at home in daylight and are usually only there by necessity. One of the most common times to observe them is during and after a rainstorm, particularly at night. As a child, I often wondered why earthworms seemed so determined to drown themselves in puddles. Researchers have still not reached consensus on the causes for this behavior. Darwin supposed that the sicker worms were driven to the surface by flooded soil. Some propose that they are driven from the saturated soil by low oxygen content, where many drown in puddles as they attempt to find non-waterlogged soil. Other researchers are skeptical of this angle, as worms require moisture to breathe through their skin, and many species can survive immersion in water for extended periods. They suggest that the worms are using the wet conditions brought by rains to aid migration to new patches of soil, or even to mate. The reality, as often is the case, is likely something of a combination of all of the above.
One team found that different earthworm species have different tolerance levels for low oxygen conditions. The worms that can survive extended periods of immersion in water are the same species that often remains under the ground following a rainstorm. These worms have lower oxygen consumption. The worms with higher rates of oxygen consumption leave the ground when dissolved oxygen levels are too low to sustain respiration. They do so preferentially at night, partially because this is a period when they are more active, and thus respiring more oxygen, and also because at night they are less exposed to predation by birds. The early bird (at least before sunrise) really does tend to get the worm.
Some have suggested that the rhythm of raindrops stimulates the emergence of earthworms, and that the same mechanism allows fishermen (and animals) to use “worm fiddling” or charming to gather thousands of worms at a time for bait. Worm fiddling can take many forms, but one of the most common techniques observed involves rubbing a long piece of metal against a post driven into the ground. The vibrations induce thousands of worms to rise up out of their burrows.
Ken Catania, a biologist at Vanderbilt University, rejected the rain rhythm idea and proposed that worm fiddling actually works by imitating the noise of a burrowing mole, one of the most ravenous predators of worms. Rather than fleeing from the simulated rain, the worms are fleeing the jaws of their greatest enemy, only to be trapped at the surface by a different adversary. Like a whale driven to beach itself by noise pollution or the threat of a predator, surfaced earthworms deserve our sympathy, particularly if they’re destined to become our fishing bait.