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Opening a can of (exotic) worms

Research grows into outreach for citizen scientists

Gardeners covet earthworms for their composting abilities. Anglers dangle them on their hooks. Kids giggle as they wiggle around in their hands. But many people don’t realize that these worms are really exotic invaders in Minnesota’s woods.

Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) University of Minnesota Duluth scientist and U of M graduate student Cindy Hale (above) has done extensive research on the effect of these non-native leaf litter munchers on forest plants. And in the process she’s spreading an enthusiasm about science to many non-scientists.

“Looking at worms and how they affect the forest is a great way to understand how nutrients cycle through the ecosystem,” Hale explained. “Because worms are not native to the forests here, they speed up the natural nutrient cycle by eating the duff layer that would otherwise decay over many years. The disappearance of the forest floor and understory plants is very visible where we have worm invasions.”

Hale’s worm research is attention grabbing because it brings to light new revelations about something very familiar that people think they already know something about. Gardeners and anglers have long been fans of earthworms and night crawlers. But earthworms have only been on the North American continent for a couple hundred years when they hitchhiked over on boats from Europe. The forests, however, have been growing here worm-free much longer. Minnesota’s trees (sugar maples in Hale’s study) have evolved over some 10,000 years with the slow nutrient cycling of bacteria and fungi. Now they must adapt to earthworms that eat away the duff soil layer, which, when left alone, supplies nutrients to the trees as it decomposes.

“How the forests will adapt to this change is anyone’s guess at this point,” said Hale. “That’s what makes this research so interesting. When we started this project five years ago there was almost no research on earthworms in Minnesota. Hardly anything.”

That leaves the door wide open for everyone to participate, and Hale has pushed her worm research project outward to include “citizen scientists” from the elementary level through college and into the professional sectors. Her long-range goal is to use worms to blur the line between non-scientists and scientists. The model can then be used by other groups doing research that would also benefit from having citizen scientists gather data—like monitoring of dragonflies, butterflies and water quality projects.

“People seem to think that all the important science has been done already, but the truth is, we know almost nothing,” said Hale. “There’s so much out there to discover, but you don’t realize that until you’re involved in it.”

Having students collect data on interesting critters in their communities adds to the database of knowledge and, as Hale has seen with worm research, it’s not hard to get their attention. While some of the techniques are slow and meticulous, students of all ages squeal in delight as earthworms rocket out of the ground when confronted with a little mustard-tainted water. Excitement surrounding her research with worms has generated a series of Train the Educator workshops, a Minnesota Worm Watch website (, and “Contain Those Crawlers” posters about stopping the spread of invasive worms.

But even more help is needed. This spring Hale will train members of the Minnesota Conservation Corps so they can collect data in remote targeted areas. The hope is to get continued funding to keep the project going and growing. The research project thus far has been supported by the Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership through the University of Minnesota Extension Service and a Department of Natural Resources Environmental Partnerships grant. Hale has also relied on graduate students from the University of Minnesota Duluth Environmental Science Program who helped create the curriculum materials and host citizen scientist workshops.

“There are so many organizations that are interested in having the community help with research,” said Hale. “What we really need is an umbrella organization to make them accessible that way. If we had one organization to develop tool kits, protocol, training programs and to disseminate the information, we could get many more people involved and increase science literacy for everyone.”


Worms take on the world

While the earthworms help spread science knowledge, the worms themselves are spreading and research on their impact continues beyond Minnesota.

NRRI received funding from the Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Unit, a collaborative effort between the federal government and the university, for Hale to start worm research projects in the Pictured Rocks National Park in Michigan and in Voyageurs National Park near the Canadian border in Minnesota. These projects will study the effect of worms beyond the Sugar Maple forests by looking at forests with combinations of Beech-Maple, Beech-Oak, Aspen-Birch, and Spruce-Fir. She’s also bringing her expertise to France in 2004 for the International Conference Soil Zoology. Hale and her research will join the an international team of scientists from Russia, Germany, Puerto Rico, South America, New Zealand and Australia. The result will be a series of papers on the dynamics of earthworm invasions globally to be published in the Journal of Biological Invasions.

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Last modified on 11/06/03 11:02 AM

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