KZN’s giant worms

2013-10-31 00:00

A CHILD’S story, first heard in the late nineties on SAfm, said earthworms work as hard underground as elephants do on top because earthworms are actually tiny elephants.

It all started very long ago, on the sixth day of creation. The creator had finished making all the big animals with some lovely grey clay and he was just about to have some tea when he noticed his hands were mucky.

As God rubbed the clay off his palms, he looked at the big grey animals making their way down to the new earth. In front were the hippos, then the crocodiles and rhinos and last, trumpeting a lively marching tune, the elephants.

He gave a long, contended sigh and as his breath passed over the slivers of grey clay in his hand, they became alive, programmed with all the thoughts God had for elephants.

They wanted to trumpet and trample trees, but instead they could only tremble on his palm. “Make us whole!” they cried in piteous voices.

But God had no more grey clay to build the bodies their mighty thoughts required. So he made a deal with the tiny slivers of grey clay.

He told them he would put them down on Earth with their fellow elephants and if they could find more grey clay underground, he would finish their bodies.

Since then, earthworms have been turning mountains of leaves into nutritious soil. And every night, hopeful earthworms all over the world push up their casts and ask: “Is this elephant clay?”

Each night, God tells the earthworms it is not and the worms all go back to their tunnels, working as hard as any pachyderm, dreaming of the day they will have bodies to match their strength.

Local giants

Between the Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve and Oribi Gorge east of Port Shepstone, the casts pushed up by earthworms are as big as a woman’s fist. The worms that make them are considered among the second longest in the world.

One of the world’s leading authorities on earthworms, Dr Danuta Plisko (87) of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, named the worms at Vernon Crookes reserve Microchaetus vernoni, but there is nothing micro about them. The longest one measured 2,6 metres.

As with all the other long earthworms, vernoni have relatively thin bodies, being only about a centimetre thick. This is because long and thin is the best shape to burrow with.

The people at Vernon Crookes ask visitors to steer clear of the big casts, because, like the two known giant earthworms in the Msunduzi municipal area, these underground giants are among the growing list of endangered species associated with South Africa’s diminishing grasslands.

The Witness was on hand when Thembeka Nxele, a vermicologist at the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg, found the typical large casts of vernoni in a low-tillage sugar cane plantation.

The owner of the plantation told The Witness his grounds had not seen a plough in 25 years but he used chemicals in the same ratios as other sugar cane growers.

Nxele said the giant casts in the low-tillage plantation suggested it was primarily heavy ploughing and not the use of chemicals that had decimated indigenous earthworm populations in sugar cane plantations.

Pilsko cautioned that more study was needed to confirm this. Human developments continued to pose the main threat to worms, she said, adding that the race was on to learn more about giant earthworms, for example how old they get.

Meanwile, KZN’s giant green earthworm, Microchaetus papillatus, is being relocated from the site proposed for The Grange residential development on Richmond Road.

In the 2009 Environmental Service plan for the Msunduzi Municipality, Plisko had described papillatus as typically over a metre long with a greenish tint.

She said this earthworm could breed if corridors like agricultural lands allowed the worms to connect, unlike its slightly shorter cousin in the capital, the large Pietermaritzburg earthworm (Microchaetus caementerii), which needed pristine grasslands and is thought to be extinct.

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