Helen Pilcher talks to Emma Sherlock, curator of invertebrates at London’s Natural History Museum and champion of the humble earthworm.
What do you do?
I study earthworms and look after our fabulous collection of them here at the museum.
How do people react when you tell them that?
There’s normally a lot of face pulling. It stops a lot of conversations, or people sometimes ask me when I will work on ‘better’ animals like frogs or mammals!
Tell us something amazing about earthworms.
They have five hearts or ‘pseudo-hearts.’ They can regrow certain nerve cells. Some species can jump into the air to avoid predators, while others deliberately detach their tail which then wiggles around while the front half sneaks away. Some are so strong they can pick up and move small stones with their mouths.
So they’re not all boring and brown?
Not at all. There are 29 species in the UK, over 500 in the world. They come in all different sizes and colours. Some are striped, some are spotted. Some are iridescent. Others, which often like golf courses or dung heaps, can fluoresce. The biggest, the Giant Gippsland earthworm of Australia, can grow to more than two metres in length.
Impressive. But what have earthworms ever done for us?
They break down decaying plant matter to make the earth rich and fertile. They aerate the soil and convert nutrients into a form that plants can use. They’re also an important food source for the many animals that eat them. They’re hugely important ecosystem engineers, yet they seem to be the most under-appreciated animals on the planet.
Do they need our help?
One big problem is we have no idea how well or otherwise earthworms are doing because there’s no baseline data. If you join the Earthworm Society, you can learn how to become a registered earthworm recorder. We’ll train you up, then you can start collecting and sending in your data. This will help us to build up a picture of how our native earthworms are doing.
I’ve heard there are worm charming competitions. Have you ever taken part in one?
Yes, several times. You have to charm as many earthworms out of the ground as you can by twanging the earth with a pitchfork. I got about 40, so was quite proud of myself, but the winner was a kid and his dad, who got over 100. They were incredible. I have no idea how they did it.
Do you have any unfulfilled earthworm ambitions?
I’m hoping to set up the first Earthworm Conservation Centre, where we’ll store earthworm cocoons from around the world. These will be frozen carefully and stored away, so they could be revived later and used to boost flagging populations. There also used to be a worm festival in Australia. Every year, they’d crown someone ‘Queen Earthworm’. That’s a title I’d really like.
What do you do when you’re not working with earthworms?
I enjoy playing tennis. My old club had grass courts. When I finished a game I’d sometimes go to the bar, then as I walked past the courts on the way home I’d stop to see if any earthworms had come to the surface. Tennis courts are a great place for earthworm watching.