Worms: great for fish­ing, en­vi­rons

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - Bill Rettew Bill Rettew Jr. is a weekly colum­nist and Ch­ester County na­tive. He’s a big fan of both Carl Sagan and Pagán. He may be con­tacted at bret­tew@ dailylocal.com

Worms are odd. They seem­ingly have no head, while liv­ing mostly in the dark and un­der­ground.

Fifty years ago, we were able to col­lect a sum­mer’s worth of nightcrawlers for fish­ing in just a sin­gle evening. We once lived at 228 W. Miner St. in West Ch­ester. We col­lected a sum­mer’s bait from be­neath that mas­sive cherry tree near Por­tico Row.

We’d try to hunt af­ter a light rain when the ground was slick, a bit sloppy and al­ways af­ter dark. We car­ried cof­fee cans and flash­lights.

While squat­ting and creep­ing along, we’d hit the light and look for a silky glow of a worm ex­tended and out­side a hole.

With an ex­tended in­dex fin­ger, we’d press down gen­tly on a por­tion of the worm far­thest from the hole. Some of those ba­bies were more than six inches long.

The worm would clench and stretch, while strain­ing to re­turn to the earth, but with pres­sure, even­tu­ally would be­come winded and suc­cumb to the cof­fee can.

We housed hun­dreds of worms in a wooden chest in the base­ment. We filled the chest with soil made for worms and packed with nu­tri­ents for worms.

And then, all sum­mer long, we caught hun­dreds of fish with our bounty.

In Boy Scouts, my first sum­mer at Camp Horse­shoe, our scout troop per­formed an ini­ti­a­tion. Some might call it mild haz­ing of the younger scouts by their el­ders. I’d just say it was gross.

We each bit into a large nightcrawler, cut­ting it in half. I still re­mem­ber, the taste was just like the smell of worm and very earthy. Yuck!

So it was still with the mem­ory of that taste in my mouth that I vis­ited with One R. Pagán, a sci­en­tist, au­thor of “Strange Sur­vivors,” and pro­fes­sor at West Ch­ester Univer­sity. Those stud­ied by Pagán are not huge nightcrawlers, but worms about the size of a clipped fin­ger­nail.

Pagán’s of­fice is filled with shelves of worms. He said he hates to eu­th­a­nize rats and mice, but he feels dif­fer­ently about worms.

He is the only “worm guy” at WCU.

Pagán doses the worms with nico­tine, al­co­hol and drugs, ex­poses them to light and dark, to view how worms re­act.

In “Strange Sur­vivors” Pagán writes about sur­vival mech­a­nisms of sev­eral dif­fer­ent crea­tures.

“Bi­o­log­i­cal life fills us with won­der with its un­end­ing mys­ter­ies, puz­zling be­hav­iors, breath­tak­ing beauty, raw vi­o­lence, and un­ex­pected li­aisons,” he writes in the in­tro­duc­tion.

Pagán wrote that many traits of other an­i­mals of­fer us tools to im­prove our chances of sur­vival. He be­lieves our main goal is to pass on our genes.

“I wanted to go be­yond claws, fangs or stealth,” he said about meth­ods of sur­vival. “There are one and a half mil­lion species, each with its own idio­syn­cra­sies.

“I nar­rowed it down to gen­eral strate­gies.”

Some rays, eels and cat­fish can gen­er­ate many volts of elec­tri­cal shock.

“They pack a punch,” Pagán said.

Some crea­tures can cut them­selves into pieces and even lose a head, and still sur­vive.

“If we can learn how to do that, can you imag­ine that Alzheimer’s, stroke and brain dam­age from ac­ci­dents might be re­versed,” said the pro­fes­sor.

Some can dis­charge ven­omous tox­ins and re­lease se­cre­tions. A conch hunts fish and slow snails while us­ing a lit­tle snout, wedge or har­poon that par­a­lyzes. Jel­ly­fish use a trig­ger and are able pen­e­trate the skin of prey.

Oth­ers use speed and stealth to ob­tain din­ner. A shock wave can be cre­ated that is strong enough to break shells.

Hu­mans are not the big­gest, bad­dest or fastest. We have learned how to co­op­er­ate when it suits us.

Pagán told me he al­ways wanted to be a sci­en­tist and now he also writes for stu­dents and non-sci­en­tists. His writ­ing is clear and con­cise.

“I like ex­plain­ing things that any­one can un­der­stand re­gard­less of their for­mal ed­u­ca­tion,” Pagán said. “Ev­ery­one can un­der­stand sci­ence if it is prop­erly ex­plained.”

No, I didn’t sam­ple those worms on that visit to Pagán. I’ll do any­thing twice, ex­cept bite a worm in half.

Learn­ing about sci­ence is a joy when taught the right way. For more in­for­ma­tion go to http://www.bald­sci­en­tist.word­press.com.


A West Ch­ester Univer­sity sci­en­tist and pro­fes­sor stud­ies itsy-bitsy worms


West Ch­ester sci­en­tist and pro­fes­sor One R. Pagán.

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