Crazy Worms That Leap Out Of Your Hand Are Currently Invading America

These babies really come to life when you pick them up. Image credit: Njh5880, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You might think it’d be easy enough to control the spread of an invasive worm, but the United States are under siege from one such invader. Going by the names crazy worms, snake worms and Alabama jumpers, these wriggly fugitives have been working their way through 15 states (that we know about) across the country, and being an invasive species means this is bad news for nature.

What are Crazy Worms?

Crazy worms are actually three species from the Amynthas genus, and while they are undoubtedly a pest, they do have some nifty tricks about them. If you were to place one in your palm, it’d soon have flipped itself onto the floor wriggling like a snake on a hot plate, which is why some people call them snake worms. They can even drop their tail when threatened, though it can be hard to know which end this is while it’s madly flapping around.

Why are They bad news?

Unlike the good old earthworm, crazy worms do nothing for the soil and actually remove all nourishing elements, leaving in their wake an empty, coffee-ground-like mess. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that they also outcompete all the good-egg worms doing their best to turn over soil and facilitate the nutrient cycle. This spells trouble ahead for native species of invertebrates, fungi and plants as the earth becomes littered with poor quality soil.

The complication in containing them becomes apparent when you learn about their enthusiastic reproductive habits. Crazy worms' eggs will hatch even if they're not fertilized by a mate, leaving adults free to churn out eggs in their droves which, inconveniently, are the same color as the soil they’re embedded in. This makes them very hard for anyone to spot (unlike these invasive walking toupees) and collect. The newly hatched worms then make quick work of the topsoil’s nutrients before going in search of more nourishing pastures.

How did crazy worms get to America?

Originally from Korea and Japan, crazy worms first arrived in North America sometime around the 19th century. Like so many other invasive species have done so in history, they were able to hitch a ride onboard ships transporting dirt and botanical materials internationally. According to a report from Newsweek, they’ve since wriggled their way to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, Indiana, Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Popular theories suggest they continue to hitchhike across the country hidden in plants as worms or are spreading as cocoons stuck to equipment or released into waterways.

How do you get rid of crazy worms?

Much to scientists’ dismay, crazy worms are really quite tough. The recent winter storm in Texas would have been pretty efficient at killing adult Amynthas, but their winter-hardy cocoons were probably fine. "Kill it with fire", as the internet so often suggests, probably wouldn't work either. A 2015 study found that “prescribed fires” (imagine picking that one up at the drugstore) could reduce the number of Amynthas agrestis (one of the three crazy worm species) eggs hatching, but not wipe them out completely. Perhaps, then, an inadvisable strategy for waging a worm war in an ever-warming world.

Back to the drawing board.

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