MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Think of it as the Loch Ness monster of the Prairie. The giant Palouse earthworm, a big, white worm native to the Palouse prairie of Idaho and Washington State. They were said to be abundant in the late 19th century, then they seemed to disappear. Plenty of skeptics doubted that they ever existed, but now researchers are digging them up and that has some people worried.
NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Moscow, Idaho.
MARTIN KASTE: Karl Umiker is a support scientist at the University of Idaho. Last month, he and a graduate student were out on an unplowed fragment of prairie hunting for the big one. There hadn't been a confirmed sighting of the worm since 2005, but Umiker had a new tool at his disposal.
Mr. KARL UMIKER (Research Support Scientist, University of Idaho): We're inside the van here. We have one of the instruments we use to locate and extract these worms from the soil.
KASTE: Instrument - all of a sudden, you sound very science-y and very formal. What were you just calling this a second go?
Mr. UMIKER: All right. It's a shocker, an electro shocker.
KASTE: After jolting the soil a couple of times, Umiker dug around, and suddenly, there it was. The worm was captured and is now sitting in a freezer at the University of Kansas, where it was positively identified. The immediate question, the obvious question, is how big was this prairie giant?
Mr. UMIKER: The problem with earthworm stories is they can get longer and longer, and you can always stretch an earthworm, right?
KASTE: So on a cold day, how long was this earthworm?
Mr. UMIKER: Under the normal conditions - without stretching it - it was probably about, close to 20 centimeters.
KASTE: About eight inches. Even the head of this project, soil ecologist Jodi Johnson-Maynard backpedals from the whole giant thing.
Dr. JODI JOHNSON-MAYNARD (Professor of Soil Science; University of Idaho): There are reportings of the meter-long earthworm, three feet long, but I haven't seen that. Now, possibly, if one of these guys happens to live a long time, potentially it could get that long, but I think most common might be a foot or little bit less.
KASTE: Still, it's clear that these aren't your average night crawlers.
Dr. JOHNSON-MAYNARD: This is a sample bag that came from a prairie remnant.
KASTE: Johnson-Maynard opens a Ziploc bag full of dirt and out comes a worm, a live one. She thinks it's a giant Palouse, but it's too immature to know for sure until the DNA test is done. But it is odd-looking. The ends are more bulbous than your average bait worm, and its body is so translucent, you can see the big vein corkscrewing around its organs. Mature giant Palouse earthworms are practically white, and there may be something else.
Dr. JOHNSON-MAYNARD: What you read in the literature is that they have a lily-like odor to them.
KASTE: That's right, lily - a worm that smells like a flower. At least that's what someone once reported years ago. The worm is so rare it's hard to separate myth from reality. And now that Johnson-Maynard has collected a few, she has her doubts. She lifts junior up to her nose.
Dr. JOHNSON-MAYNARD: No lily. I have a fairly sensitive nose, too, and I just can't smell the lily.
KASTE: But not everybody around here is thrilled with all this talk of super-rare, biggish, perfumed earthworms.
Mr. CRAIG FLEENER(ph) (Farmer, Member, Farmer Bureau): I have concerns.
KASTE: Craig Fleener is a local farmer and a member of the Farm Bureau, which recently held a meeting to discuss the possibility that the giant Palouse earthworm could end up on the endangered species list.
Mr. FLEENER: There's great potential for loss of freedom of what you can do with your land if the government comes in and says, well, you have to do such and such, or you can't do such and such because we have to protect the giant Palouse earthworm.
KASTE: Fleener believes the country is moving toward socialism, and any effort to list the worm as endangered is just another step in that direction. And in fact, local conservation groups are pressing the federal government to list the worm. One petition was turned down in 2007, but now the groups are trying again.
Mr. DAVID HALL (Palouse Prairie Foundation): A couple of weeks ago, I was looking and I found some holes.
KASTE: This is David Hall, head of the local Palouse Prairie Foundation. On his own property, he says, he may have found the worms' burrows. The burrows can go down about 15 feet.
Mr. HALL: About penny-size and just very smooth and straight down. I thought that was pretty cool.
KASTE: Cool to him maybe, but at least some farmers around here are hoping that he doesn't see anything pop out of those holes.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Moscow, Idaho.
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