Earthworm is the usual name for the largest members of Oligochaeta (which is either a class or subclass depending on the author) in the phylum Annelida. In classical systems they were placed in the order Opisthopora, on the basis of the male pores opening posterior to the female pores, even though the internal male segments are anterior to the female. Theoretical cladistic studies have placed them instead in the suborder Lumbricina of the order Haplotaxida, but this may again soon change. Folk names for the earthworm include "dew-worm", "rainworm", "night crawler" and "angleworm" (due to its use as fishing bait).
Earthworms are also called megadriles (or big worms), as opposed to the microdriles (or small worms) in the families Tubificidae, Lumbriculidae, and Enchytraeidae, among others. The megadriles are characterized by having a multilayered clitellum (which is much more obvious than the single-layered one of the microdriles), a vascular system with true capillaries, and male pores behind the female pores.
Earthworms are hermaphrodites: They have testes and seminal vesicles which produce, store and release the sperm via male pores, and ovaries and ovipores that release eggs via female pores. However, most also have one or more pairs of spermathecae (depending on the species) that are internal sacs which receive and store sperm from the other worm in copulation. Some species use external spermatophores for transfer instead. Copulation and reproduction are separate processes in earthworms. The mating pair overlap front ends ventrally and each exchanges sperm with the other. The cocoon, or egg case, is secreted by the clitellum, band which is near the front of the worm, but behind the spermathecae. Some time after copulation, long after the worms have separated, the clitellum secretes the cocoon which forms a ring around the worm. The worm then backs out of the ring, and as it does so, injects its own eggs and the other worm's sperm into it. As the worm slips out, the ends of the cocoon seal to form a vaguely lemon-shaped incubator (cocoon) in which the embryonic worms develop. They emerge as small, but fully formed earthworms, except for a lack of the sex structures, which develop later in about 60 to 90 days. They attain full size in about one year. Several common earthworm species are mostly parthenogenetic, that is, with asexually reproduction resulting in clones.
Earthworms are seen on the surface after large rain storms flood the soil because, despite needing a moist environment to allow the diffusion of gases across their skin membrane, where the soil becomes saturated they begin to drown. To protect themselves they escape to the surface but if the ground is un-naturally hard they may become stranded and die from exposure. This is why they are seen in places like driveways after a storm. However, this theory is not applicable to certain earthworm species that can survive immersion for several days in oxygenated water.
An alternative theory concerning this behaviour is that as some species (notably Lumbricus terrestris) come to the surface to mate they may become stranded. However, as this behaviour is limited to only a few species and L. terrestris is rarely, if ever, one of those found stranded on impermeable surfaces, this theory does not seem a very likely explanation.
Another theory is that the worms may be using the moist conditions on the surface to travel more quickly than they can underground, thus colonizing new areas more quickly. Since the relative humidity is higher during and after rain, they do not become dehydrated. This is a dangerous activity in the daytime, since earthworms die quickly when exposed to direct sunlight with its strong UV content, and are more vulnerable to predators such as birds.
A further theory is that, as there are many other organisms in the ground as well, and their respiration increases carbon dioxide, this gas may dissolve into the rainwater to form carbonic acid. As the soil becomes too acidic for the worms, they seek a more neutral environment on the surface.
Earthworms travel underground by the means of waves of muscular contractions which alternately shorten and lengthen the body. The shortened part is anchored to the surrounding soil by tiny claw-like bristles (setae) set along its segmented length. (Typically, earthworms have four pairs of setae for each segment but some genera are perichaetine, having a large number of setae on each segment.) The whole burrowing process is aided by the secretion of lubricating mucus. Worms can make gurgling noises underground when disturbed as a result of the worm moving through its lubricated tunnels. They also work as biological "pistons' forcing air through the tunnels as they move. Thus earthworm activity aerates and mixes the soil, and is constructive to mineralization and nutrient uptake by vegetation. Certain species of earthworm come to the surface and graze on the higher concentrations of organic matter present there, mixing it with the mineral soil. Because a high level of organic matter mixing is associated with soil fertility, an abundance of earthworms is beneficial to the organic gardener. In fact as long ago as 1881 Charles Darwin wrote: It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures
The earthworm's existence cannot be taken for granted. Dr. W. E. Shewell Cooper observed "tremendous numerical differences between adjacent gardens" (Soil, Humus And Health), and worm populations are affected by a host of environmental factors, many of which can be influenced by good management practices on the part of the gardener or farmer.
Darwin estimated that arable land contains up to 53,000 worms per acre (13/m²), but more recent research from Rothamsted Experimental Station has produced figures suggesting that even poor soil may support 250,000/acre (62/m²), whilst rich fertile farmland may have up to 1,750,000/acre (432/m²), meaning that the weight of earthworms beneath the farmer's soil could be greater than that of his livestock upon its surface. One thing is certain however: rich, fertile soil that is cared for organically and well-fed and husbanded by its steward will reap its reward in a healthy worm population, whilst denuded, overworked, and eroded land will almost certainly contain fewer, scrawny, undernourished specimens.
Earthworm populations depend on both physical and chemical properties of the soil, such as soil temperature, moisture, pH, salts, aeration and texture, as well as available food, and the ability of the species to reproduce and disperse. One of the most important environmental factors is pH, but earthworms vary in their preferences. Most earthworms favor neutral to slightly acidic soil. However, Lumbricus terrestris are still present in a pH of 5.4 and Dendrobaena octaedra at a pH of 4.3 and some Megascolecidae are present in extremely acid humic soils. Soil pH may also influence the numbers of worms that go into diapause. The more acid the soil, the sooner worms go into diapause, and remain in diapause the longest time at a pH of 6.4.
Earthworms form the base of many food chains. They are preyed upon by many species of birds, e.g. starlings, thrushes, gulls, crows, and both European Robins and American Robins. Some snakes feed on them and mammals such as bears, foxes, hedgehogs and moles eat many earthworms as well. Earthworms are also eaten by many invertebrates such as ground beetles and other beetles, snails, slugs. Earthworms have many internal parasites including Protozoa, Platyhelminthes, Nematodes. They are found in many parts of earthworms' bodies such as blood, seminal vesicles, coelom, intestine, or in the cocoons.
The application of chemical fertilizers, sprays and dusts can have a disastrous effect on earthworm populations. Nitrogenous fertilizers tend to create acid conditions, which are fatal to the worms, and often dead specimens are to be found on the surface following the application of substances like DDT, lime sulphur and lead arsenate. In Australia, the use of superphosphate on pastures almost completely wiped out the giant Gippsland earthworm.
Therefore, the most reliable way to maintain or increase the levels of worm population in the soil is to avoid the application of artificial chemicals. Adding organic matter, preferably as a surface mulch, on a regular basis will provide them with their food and nutrient requirements, and also creates the optimum conditions of heat (cooler in summer and warmer in winter) and moisture to stimulate their activity.
A recent threat to earthworm populations in the UK is the New Zealand Flatworm (Artiposthia triangulata), which feeds upon the earthworm, but in the UK has no natural predator itself. At present sightings of the New Zealand flatworm have been mainly localised, but this is no reason for complacency as it has spread extensively since its introduction in 1960 through contaminated soil and plant pots. Any sightings of the flatworm should be reported to the Scottish Crop Research Institute, which is monitoring its spread.
Earthworms are sold all over the world. The earthworm market is sizable. According to Doug Collicut (see "Nightcrawler" link below), "In 1980, 370 million worms were exported from Canada, with a Canadian export value of $13 million and an American retail value of $54 million."
A report on biodiversity published by the Irish Government in May 2008 estimated the activities of the earthworm to be worth a minimum of €723 millon per annum to Irish agriculture.
Lee, Keneth E. Earthworms: Their Ecology and Relationships with Soils and Land Use. Academic Press. Sydney, 1985. ISBN 0-12-440860-5
Stewart, Amy. The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 2004. ISBN 1-56512-337-9