The Crazy Snake Worm Invasion You Haven’t Heard About
By Jason Bittel
My wife and I built a house two years ago on a few acres of woodland outside of Pittsburgh. The backyard is full of maples, poplars, briars and common spicebush. Two-lined salamanders and grumpy-looking crayfish wade among the rocks in the small stream that runs down the edge of the property. Deer, raccoon and opossum tracks appear regularly in the snow and mud. Sometimes, my trail-cam even catches a pair of gray foxes as they slink through the night.
All in all, it's a small patch of heaven—exactly what you'd expect from a southwestern Pennsylvanian forest.
Except, that is, for the crazy snake worms.
Named for the way they writhe and leap off the ground like snakes on a hot plate, crazy snake worms are an invasive species on the move through the eastern half of the country. Originally from Korea and Japan, these annelids are thought to have arrived in the U.S. 50-some years ago as stowaways in the pots of decorative plants. Since then, crazy snake worms have spread out across Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and other states.
And my backyard.
Take a step into my woods in August or September, after the worms have spent the summer growing to half a foot long, and you can watch as scores of them suddenly emerge from beneath your foot and the surrounding leaf litter. Try to pick one up and it'll leap from your hand like a fish out of water. Sometimes the things even leave their tails behind—a behavior meant to fool predators.
Gross, sure, but are they really crazy? Yes, yes, they are. As a kid, I remember going digging for earthworms, the more standard variety, to use as fishing bait. But crazy snake worms—they find you.
Whereas some worm species like to burrow down deep, these worms conspicuously wriggle around the uppermost layer of soil, spending all day sliding through the leaf litter and munching on organic material. And there's the real problem.
Gardeners love earthworms because they "churn up the soil and create spaces for nutrients to flow and water to get to the roots," said Bradley Herrick, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum. But it's not always that simple. Crazy snake worms also cycle nutrients, said Herrick, but they do it so quickly and so superficially—aboveground, not below—that erosion and rain often wash away all the good stuff before the plants can make use of it. This is especially problematic for ecosystems in areas of the Northeast and upper Midwest, where glaciers once scoured the land. For tens of thousands of years, forests there evolved in the absence of worms.
A forest without earthworms (left) has a rich understory of plants and a thick leaf-litter layer; one experiencing a heavy earthworm invasion (right) has few remaining plants and no intact litter layer.Scott Loss
"Those glaciers basically exterminated all the earthworms, and so all the earthworms that are found now in that part of the country are all nonnative and mostly invasive in nature," said Herrick. You read that right. Not only are crazy snake worms nonnative, but every other worm you've ever seen in these regions is, too.
Most of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about the importance of dirt—especially not forest dirt—but worms can be proficient ecosystem engineers, and they are transforming the earth beneath us. Their "poop," called castings, contains calcium carbonate, and in great enough amounts it can change the chemistry of the soil, making it more alkaline and less welcoming to certain kinds of plants, such as azaleas and oaks.
Native wildlife species take a hit from the activity of crazy snake worms, too. Seedlings and wildflowers have a tough time taking root in the depleted, dry, and loose soil the worms create. The resulting absence of vegetation can not only exacerbate erosion but also rob ground-nesting birds, salamanders, and insects of hiding places. And in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, researchers have found lower millipede biodiversity and numbers wherever crazy snake worms crawl. They think the worms may be outcompeting millipedes for food or simply changing the ecosystem in such a way that it no longer supports the thousand-leggers.
While research on crazy snake worms is scant, some interesting facts have begun to surface. For example, what we refer to as crazy snake worms are actually three different but closely related species: Amynthas agrestis, Amynthas tokioensis and Metaphire hilgendorfi. And where one species occurs, you often find the second and third, too. So the invasion is a bit of a worm party.
The characteristic coffee ground–like soil left behind by Asian jumping worms.Eric Hamilton
Amynthas hilgendorfi eats so voraciously that it can grow at a rate of 1.35 milligrams per day. (For those of you unfamiliar with standard worm growth rates, that's nearly seven times as fast as the nightcrawler, Lumbricus terrestris.) Add to this the fact that crazy snake worms are parthenogenic, which basically means even their unfertilized eggs can hatch (so they can reproduce without having to find a mate), and you've got the makings of a truly intractable critter.
"Just at the small scale we have here at the Arboretum, in some of our maple woodlands they've spread as much as 20 to 25 acres in four years," said Herrick.
This worm party invites other nonnative species to the forest, too. The native vegetation void the worms cause on the forest floor allows hardy invasive species like buckthorn and garlic mustard to take root. Herrick refers to the process as a feedback loop, adding, "It can turn into a kind of parade of invasive species once that first disturbance is there."
This may explain the excessive amount of stiltgrass in my own woods. This invasive weed chokes out wildflowers and other natives while altering the soil's moisture and pH content—more transformations to which native species will have to adjust.
When it comes to biological invasions, prevention is the best medicine. For crazy snake worms, this means cleaning gardening tools and boots before taking them to worm-free areas. (The worms themselves are unlikely to hitchhike on your person, but their egg cocoons are tiny and can travel in dirt and mud.) Herrick said finding reliable suppliers for mulch, soil and plants is also key.
But there isn't much we can do currently about existing infestations. There are no approved pesticides for worms (and spraying every inch of forest is out of the question in any event). The egg casings of crazy snake worms are also capable of surviving temperatures as low as –12 degrees Fahrenheit. So even a big, bad polar vortex, like the one that hit recently, wouldn't necessarily put a dent in my woods' worm problem.
So, can we kill it with fire, as the Internet would say? Well, yes and no. A 2015 study found that prescribed burns don't effectively kill off many adult worms—though they did reduce the number of cocoons that hatched later. Fire, the researchers suggest, might also indirectly kill many surviving hatchlings simply by burning up the soil nutrients they rely on for food.
Good to know, but I imagine my neighbors would have some issues with me setting our adjoining woods ablaze in order to slightly reduce the survival rate of juvenile worms. So, unless another glacier scrapes into town, my crazies are here to stay.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
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