Worms ‘make the world work’
A new book claims worms are the world’s most influential species, even more so than humans. Here author Christopher Lloyd sets out his claims
THEY ARE silent, slimy and wriggly, devoid of personality and shaped so that you can’t even tell one end from the other.
But to me, earthworms are extraordinary creatures. After an exhaustive 2½ year study of 100 of life’s most successful species, I have come to the conclusion that, despite their lowly lifestyle, earthworms sit at the top of the evolutionary tree.
When they first appeared, at the bottom of the seas, wriggling worm-like bodies quickly became the generic design for all animal life. You and I are just elaborate worms. Food goes in our mouths, through a hollow tube that runs down the middle of our bodies, while the leftovers of our digestive process are expelled out the other end.
We are adaptations of a brilliant piece of biological engineering that appeared in the earliest worm-like creatures millions of years ago.
The most successful worms were those that developed a characteristic survival instinct. In a bid to escape being devoured by predators, worms simply buried themselves in the sand and mud.
And then came an astonishing development. Neil Armstrong’s first steps pale into insignificance when compared with those taken by the stubby legs of a worm that struggled ashore more than 400 million years ago, marking the beginnings of the era of animal life on land.
Ever since, worms have been constantly ploughing up the earth, ventilating it into fertile soil and nourishing terrestrial ecosystems with their copious excrement.
At least five mass extinctions have occurred over the past 450 million years. But none of them ever touched these remarkable creatures.
Slice a worm in half and it regrows as if nothing happened. Divide one half and the same thing happens. One worm survived 40 butcherings in the name of science.
Were it not for their continuous regeneration of soils around damp river valleys such as the Nile, Indus and Euphrates, early agricultural societies in Egypt, India and Mesopotamia could never have succeeded in building humanity’s first large urban communities.
It might be easy to think that worms matter little today, their constant nourishing replaced by artificial fertilisers and pesticides.
But it was largely thanks to the earthworm that the unsustainable nature of these methods was exposed.
Rachel Carson, a teacher and environmental campaigner of the 1950s and 1960s, warned that Americans might one day wake up to discover they could no longer hear the birds singing in the trees as artificial pesticides, such as DDT, were poisoning the soil.
Earthworms, being so hardy, are able to tolerate such toxins. But for worm-eating birds just a few DDT-laced meals are more than enough to deliver a lethal dose.
As far as nuclear weapons are concerned, earthworms, are adapted to survive even the harshest of nuclear holocausts, thanks to their ability to burrow out of harm’s way and eat almost anything.
100 Species That Changed The World by Christopher Lloyd is published by Bloomsbury.