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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1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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