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Amynthas agrestis. Njh5880 / CC BY-SA 4.0

What grows up to eight inches long, is dark with a white band, can leap a foot in the air and is the latest threat to California’s forest ecosystems? 

The answer is the Asian jumping worm (Amynthas agrestis), a uniquely mobile species of earthworm with an impressive appetite that was sighted in the state for the first time in recent months. 

What grows up to eight inches long, is dark with a white band, can leap a foot in the air and is the latest threat to California’s forest ecosystems? 

The answer is the Asian jumping worm (Amynthas agrestis), a uniquely mobile species of earthworm with an impressive appetite that was sighted in the state for the first time in recent months. 

“These earthworms are extremely active, aggressive, and have voracious appetites,” the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) said in a report. “True to their name, they jump (known to jump off the ground or out of a bait can) and thrash immediately when handled behaving more like a threatened snake than a worm, sometimes even breaking and shedding their tail when caught.” 

A specimen was spotted at a nursery in Napa County in July of 2021. While no further specimens have been reported in California, the CDFA said it was likely that the species would spread widely throughout the state. 

Native to Japan and the Korean Peninsula, the earthworms are considered an invasive species in the U.S. because they did not evolve alongside other species in the country and can, in fact, have a negative impact on them, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service explained. This is because the species – also known as Alabama jumpers, Jersey wrigglers, wood eel, crazy worms, snake worms and crazy snake worms – devours the fallen leaves that cover the forest floor and create the top layer of its soil. While this is standard fare for earthworms, what is not standard is the speed at which the jumping worms devour their leafy food. They can consume a forest’s entire leaf layer in two to five years, according to CDFA. 

“Soil is the foundation of life – and Asian jumping worms change it,” Forest Service researcher Mac Callaham said in a press release. “In fact, earthworms can have such huge impacts that they’re able to actually reengineer the ecosystems around them.”

They replace the leaf-layer soil with a soil composed of worm castings that does not provide a home for understory plants and is dominated by bacteria rather than fungi, according to CDFA. This accelerates the conversion of leaf debris to minerals and means that plants do not have as many organic nutrients to consume. Because the forests now have fewer plants and poorer soil, they are more at risk from erosion and disease. This is especially a problem for hardwood forests that contain maple, basswood, red oak, poplar or birch. 

“Some northern hardwood forests that once had a lush understory are reported to now have only a single species of native herb and virtually no tree seedlings,” CDFA said. 

The jumping worms first arrived in the U.S. in the early 1900s via the soil in potted plants, according to the Forest Service. However, they have really begun to make their presence known in forests in recent years. 

They were spotted in Wisconsin and across New England in 2013, The Guardian reported. They have since moved westward to dozens of states. 

The worms can travel via mulch, potting mixes or potted plants, according to the Forest Service. Their cocoons can end up bunched together because of leaf blowing or raking, and they can also be spread when cities collect leaf material and return it to residents as compost. 

The Cornell Cooperative Extension has outlined some ways that individuals can help control their spread, including: 

  1. Not using them intentionally for bait or gardening.
  2. Pouring a mixture containing a gallon of water and one-third cup of ground yellow mustard on to your soil, which will force worms to the surface for removal.
  3. Covering damp soil in the late spring or summer with transparent polyethylene for two to three weeks or until the soil temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit for a minimum of three days.
  4. Picking them out of the soil and putting them in a bag, then throwing the bag away or leaving the bag in the sun for at least 10 minutes and then tossing it.

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Australian Election Reflects Broad Support for Climate Action

“This is the long-overdue climate election Australia has been waiting for,” said climate scientist Joëlle Gergis.

Politics
The Black Summer wildfires of 2019 and 2020 brought home the reality of climate change to Australia. Greg Nature Slade / Getty Images

Three years ago, Australia was supposed to have its “climate change election.” Polls had predicted a win for Labor, which had promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and nearly two-thirds of Australians agreed that the climate crisis was a major problem that required action. Despite this, the conservative Liberal-National coalition managed to cling on to power. 

This Saturday, however, it appears that voters have finally had enough of climate inaction. The opposition Labor Party won, and two groups that focused on climate issues – the Greens and the teal independents – received the biggest growth in support, as NBC News reported. 

Three years ago, Australia was supposed to have its “climate change election.” Polls had predicted a win for Labor, which had promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and nearly two-thirds of Australians agreed that the climate crisis was a major problem that required action. Despite this, the conservative Liberal-National coalition managed to cling on to power. 

This Saturday, however, it appears that voters have finally had enough of climate inaction. The opposition Labor Party won, and two groups that focused on climate issues – the Greens and the teal independents – received the biggest growth in support, as NBC News reported. 

“This is the long-overdue climate election Australia has been waiting for,” award-winning climate scientist and author from Australian National University Joëlle Gergis told The New York Times. “It was a defining moment in our nation’s history.”

Australia has emerged as something of a contradiction in recent years when it comes to the climate crisis. The country is extremely vulnerable to its impacts. Its iconic Great Barrier Reef has just suffered through its fourth mass-bleaching event in six years because of warmer than usual ocean temperatures and its devastating “black summer” wildfires of 2019 and 2020 depleted the ozone layer and killed or displaced nearly three billion animals. Yet the country has the highest coal emissions per capita of any nation on Earth, as The Guardian reported in November of 2021. At the UN COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison only promised to reduce emissions 35 percent by 2030, far below the promises made by other industrialized nations, as The New York Times reported at the time. He also did not join a global pledge to curb methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

Victorious Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese, who will take over as prime minister, has promised to reduce emissions by 43 percent by 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, according to CNN. His party says it will achieve this partly by putting more pressure on companies to reduce emissions and partly by modernizing the country’s grid and promoting solar banks and community batteries. Albanese also said he would use climate action as an opportunity for economic growth, according to The New York Times.

“Together we can end the climate wars,” Albanese told supporters Saturday, as The New York Times reported. “Together we can take advantage of the opportunity for Australia to be a renewable energy superpower.”

Votes are still being counted, so it isn’t yet clear if Labor will have the 76 seats it needs in Australia’s lower house of parliament to secure a majority, BBC News reported. However, if it does not, the Greens and the independents who want even more radical climate action will have increased power to shape policy. 

The leader of the Greens Adam Bandt said that he would prioritize a ban on new coal and gas projects as a condition for a power-sharing agreement, and some independent leaders want emissions cuts of 60 percent by 2030, according to The New York Times.

“Parliament now effectively has a ‘supermajority’ in support of climate action, which can’t be ignored,” Ben Oquist, executive director of think-tank the Australia Institute, told NBC News. 

Whether this will be sufficient to actually avoid the worst impacts of climate change remains to be seen. Climate Analytics said that Labor’s policies were not enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and were more in line with limiting warming to two degrees, according to CNN. 

Further, the country has already put and pledged a lot of money towards fossil fuels. For example, it has already promised $39 billion to subsidies for oil and gas extraction, coal power, coal railways, ports and carbon capture technology, The New York Times reported.

That said, one positive development is that a broad swath of the public now clearly supports climate action.

“People no longer need to use their imaginations to try and understand what climate change looks like in this country,” Gergis told The New York Times. “Australians have been living the consequences of inaction.”

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A super-generalist bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) visiting salvia flowers (Salvia farinacea) in an urban area. Cristina Ganuza

The importance of bees as pollinators of the world’s food crops is well-known, but wasps, flies, beetles and other insects are also vital pollen conveyors. Pollination by insects is necessary for the growth of about 75 percent of the world’s food and more than 80 percent of wild plants. Crop pollination across the globe is estimated to be worth as much as $577 billion per year.

Insect declines due to habitat lost to agriculture and urbanization have been well-studied, but another factor that has affected pollinator communities is global warming. A new study from the Julius-Maximilian University of Würzburg (JMU) looks at how, as climates become warmer and drier, the combination of shifting land uses with the warming climate can have a detrimental effect on insect diversity, and what can be done about it.

The importance of bees as pollinators of the world’s food crops is well-known, but wasps, flies, beetles and other insects are also vital pollen conveyors. Pollination by insects is necessary for the growth of about 75 percent of the world’s food and more than 80 percent of wild plants. Crop pollination across the globe is estimated to be worth as much as $577 billion per year.

Insect declines due to habitat lost to agriculture and urbanization have been well-studied, but another factor that has affected pollinator communities is global warming. A new study from the Julius-Maximilian University of Würzburg (JMU) looks at how, as climates become warmer and drier, the combination of shifting land uses with the warming climate can have a detrimental effect on insect diversity, and what can be done about it.

The researchers examined more than 3,200 identified species of pollinators from 179 locations across Bavaria. They found that warmer climates — whether they were in grassland, forests, arable or urban habitats — led to an overall loss of pollinator diversity, indicating that increased warming as a result of the climate crisis would lead to greater loss of diversity in pollinator communities.

Cristina Ganuza, a Ph.D. student at JMU’s Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology at the Biocenter, who was the lead author of the study, said that “the combination of ongoing climate change and current land use will only allow certain pollinator species to survive in different habitat types,” a recent press release from JMU stated.

The study, “Interactive effects of climate and land use on pollinator diversity differ among taxa and scales,” was published in the journal Science Advances.

“The study underpins that in addition to the importance of floral resources and the negative effects of land use intensification, climatic conditions play an increasingly important role for the maintenance of pollinator diversity. For example, the combination of high temperatures and low precipitation negatively affected total pollinator diversity, while bee richness in urban areas was negatively affected by higher mean temperatures,” said professor Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, co-author of the study and head of the Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology at JMU, in the press release.

Homogenized communities of pollinators can lead to lower crop yields, as not all species pollinate all types of plants.

“Several studies have shown that higher pollinator diversity correlates with higher yields of many crops. Crop yield increases with the number of pollinators, but also with their diversity,” Ganuza told EcoWatch. “Different pollinators visit different flowering plants. Some insects are generalists and can feed on multiple flowering-plant species, while others are specialists of a few plant species. Therefore, the higher the number of flowering-plant species, the higher the number of pollinator species. At the same time, a high pollinator diversity is needed to maintain a high flowering-plant diversity. They are mutualists and need each other.”

Warmer temperatures can be beneficial for insects, including pollinators, but only up to a certain point.

“First, pollinators and other insects are adapted to the region where they live and are able to resist changes in temperature to a certain limit. Warm temperatures within the range of tolerance of the different species are positive, because ectothermic insects can be more active than with cooler temperatures. However, if high temperatures rise too high, this limits the activity of insects and can even disrupt physiological processes,” Ganuza said. “Second, it is not only the increase in temperature that matters, precipitation patterns matter too. We are experiencing droughts more often, and many insects need water or moisture during their life cycle. Third, pollinators depend on flowering plants because they feed on nectar and pollen. If some plant species disappear because the climate got too warm or too dry, the pollinators that depend on them will disappear too. All in all, climate change is forcing insects to move to cooler regions, to change their phenology (to advance or delay their life cycle) or to change their physiology, which is an evolutionary process that normally happens much slower than climate change.”

The study showed that individual pollinator species responded differently to climates that were warmer and drier, but overall, forested landscapes maintained pollinator communities that were more diverse.

“One key finding therefore is that forest in the landscape can cushion the effects of climate warming to a certain extent,” said Ganuza, according to the press release.

“Based on other studies, we know that forests experience less temperature fluctuations than open habitats, because of their shady and moist conditions,” Ganuza told EcoWatch.

Planting more greenery in cities would make urban landscapes cooler and more amenable to insects and other animals.

“The temperature in cities could be lowered by decreasing the impervious surface and increasing the green areas. This can be achieved with green roofs and walls, planting trees, preserving parks and other non-built areas. Also promoting the use of public transport or bicycles would help, since heavy traffic contributes to increasing the heat-island effect of cities,” Ganuza told EcoWatch.

Diverse landscapes that include a variety of flowering plants ⁠— which lead to a greater array of insects, including pollinators, and other wildlife ⁠— are becoming increasingly important in the battle against biodiversity decline on a warming planet.

“At least in our study region in Germany, the presence of forest in the landscape can buffer the effects of climate warming to some extent, while large urban areas can worsen them. In general, pollinators need natural areas with abundant and diverse flower resources, but natural areas are increasingly threatened globally by intensive agriculture, monoculture forestry, deforestation and urban expansion,” Ganuza said.

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