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Originally published April 27, 2010 at 1:24 PM | Page modified April 27, 2010 at 9:07 PM

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Idaho scientists find fabled giant Palouse earthworm

Scientists at the University of Idaho have captured two specimens of the fabled giant Palouse earthworm.

Seattle Times science reporter

It's been more than two decades since scientists unearthed an intact, living specimen of a giant Palouse earthworm.

Now, researchers at the University of Idaho have bagged what might be an entire family.

On a sliver of native prairie surrounded by wheat fields, the researchers discovered an adult, a juvenile and three egg cocoons — two of which have since hatched in the lab.

The find, south of the town of Moscow, Idaho, confirms that the native worms — once feared extinct — are still hanging on, said University of Idaho soil scientist Jodi Johnson-Maynard. "They are out there," she said. "It's just very difficult to find them."

The adult measured about 10 inches long. The juvenile is slightly shorter.

Reports from the 1890s of worms up to 3 feet long were probably exaggerations, said Johnson-Maynard. She agrees with a colleague who jokes that a better name for the species would be "the larger-than-average Palouse earthworm."

But the new specimens, unearthed March 27, are the same delicate, shell-pink described by earlier collectors.

"They look beautiful," said graduate student Shan Xu, who made the discovery along with research-support scientist Karl Umiker.

The finding could revive a push to preserve remaining patches of prairie among the rolling wheat fields of Eastern Washington and western Idaho. Conservation groups petitioned for endangered-species protection for the worms in 2005. They were turned down by the federal government, but filed a second petition last year, said Noah Greenwald, of the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland.

"Only 1 percent of their former habitat remains," Greenwald said. "That makes it really important that we identify the best remnants and protect those."

To coax the worms to the surface unharmed, the scientists inserted metal electrodes into the ground, then ran a weak electrical current through them. "I like to think it tickles them," Umiker said.

In 2005 and 2008, scientists with shovels turned up what were probably giant Palouse earthworms — but in bits and pieces that made identification problematic. Possible specimens collected from a forested slope above Leavenworth in Chelan County, in 2008 were too damaged to characterize.

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The adult worm captured last month also lost its life — but in the cause of science.

The animal was shipped to University of Kansas earthworm expert Sam James, who verified its identity through dissection. DNA tests on the tissue samples will allow scientists to identify future specimens from a mucous sample or a few skin cells, instead of having to kill them, said Johnson-Maynard.

She hopes to observe the juvenile and hatchlings — now about 1-inch long — as they grow and mature.

"There's so much we don't know about them," Johnson-Maynard said.

As to whether the worms spit and smell of lilies, as pioneer reports claim, the jury is still out.

Xu says she didn't sniff the worms. Nor did they spit at her.

"They are very gentle."

Sandi Doughton:

206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com.

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