Photo courtesy Dr. B. D Van Praagh www.GiantEarthworm.org.au
Our famous residents have been loving the rainfall we have been having here for the past 6 months or so.
Megascolides australis, better know as our Giant Gippsland Earthworm are as happy as worms in mud.
The triangle between Loch, Warragul and Korumburra is the only place in the entire world where the worms can be found. The highest concentrated area is around Loch and Poowong.
The worms have a purple head and a pinkish grey body, but most of us will hear them more than see them.
A Loch born friend well remembers hearing the loud slurping, sucking, gurgling noise they make when they move underground and retreat down their burrows – it’s a bit like letting the water out of the bath.
They were discovered by surveyors in the 1870’s, who thought they were snakes.
Specimens were sent to Melbourne University, where it was discovered they were very healthy and very big earthworms.
Our legless neighbours are mainly found near creek banks, wet gullies and steep south facing hillsides.
Their habitat used to be thick forests of gum trees, tree ferns and bracken, but most of that has since been cleared to make way for farming. Their burrows can be 1.5 metres deep.
It still remains a mystery how long these creatures live for – they grow very slowly and it is thought they can live for decades. The largest found in recent years was in Loch – it was almost 2 metres long and it’s girth was about as thick as an adult thumb. It weighed almost 400 grams. One worm has even been recorded as being 3 metres long.
The worms eat their way through soil and digest decaying plant material.
Gippy worms are hermaphrodites (both male and female sex organs in one), but fertilisation still requires two worms – so how do we work that one out???
They lay their eggs in spring and summer in burrow ends and can take 12 months to hatch. When they finally do hatch, they are 20 centimetres long – I’m guessing their eggs are a decent size to accommodate them.
Our giant worms are solo dwellers and no one is really sure of how they meet and mate – do their burrows interconnect???…Worm “Tinder”, maybe???…
The high rainfall around Loch keeps their burrows continually wet – they need this moisture to help them breathe and move through the earth.
Our earthworms differ from most other worms – their waste is deposited underground and within their burrows. They are obviously not too house proud.
In 2005 David Attenborough visited the Loch/Poowong area to film these unusual giants for his program “Life In The Undergrowth” and now our beautiful area is famous on the world map of worm habitats – it’s our 14 years of fame!
Megascolides australis is in danger of extinction and is listed as Vulnerable. Slow reproduction, long lifespans, habitat in danger from physical disturbance by farming and changes to water tables all contribute to threaten our underground residents. Local councils now have planning overlays in place to protect our worms from further threat of extinction.
If these worms are dug up and and interfered with by humans, they are very fragile and are easily broken and bruised. Contrary to belief, they do not re grow or form if they are damaged.
Many local farmers are kind to our worms – they have fenced off worm habitat areas and are careful when they plough and cultivate to help these unique creatures survive.
In many ways, I don’t mind the high rainfall we have in Loch – not only is it great for our gardens, but it’s great for our earthworms.
And so I leave you with a thoughtful little poem from the famous Spike Milligan, who taught us to respect our earthworms:-
Today I saw a little worm
Wriggling on it’s belly.
Perhaps he’d like to come inside
And see what’s on the Telly.