Gardens and forests around St. Louis could soon have another invasive nuisance to contend with: Asian jumping worms, which devour soils, strip nutrients and hasten erosion, are causing a stir among area gardeners.
Experts with the University of Illinois Extension say the invasive worms have been found in the Metro East, likely spread through potting soil or mulch.
“It’s not an emergency level yet. But that’s why prevention is important,” said Austin Little, a University of Illinois horticulture educator in Jackson County, where Carbondale is located. “They have the potential to downgrade an ecosystem quickly.”
Jumping worms — sometimes called Alabama jumpers, crazy worms, or snake worms — encompass multiple species of Asian worms and earned their nicknames thanks to their distinctive wild and thrashing movement when disturbed.
The worms have been officially confirmed in Madison County, and they are suspected to be in St. Clair County to the south, according to U of I. But Little says that if they’re known to be in one part of an area, they’re likely found in other places nearby.
“You can be pretty confident that they’re in surrounding counties to some extent — they just haven’t been confirmed,” said Little.
They’re certainly not the first nonnative worms to find their way into Midwestern ecosystems — some worms here were introduced from Europe, for instance. But jumping worms churn through soil much more quickly than other worms, which can create problems, Little said.
He says their voracious soil consumption robs soils of nutrients, and can also alter the way soils are structured and stick together. The former poses threats that can reverberate throughout the environment, by detracting from the benefits that soils can offer to local vegetation. And the latter can lead to its own problems, like erosion.
It’s unclear when, exactly, jumping worms might have first reached the Metro East region. They have been documented in 23 Illinois counties since 2015, and have so far been most prevalent in northern and central parts of the state.
The worms have been found on the West Coast for a century or more, said Little, adding that their intolerance to cold helped prevent them from gaining toeholds farther east, where the climate is not as mild. But while the worms themselves are not able to survive cold winters, their cocoons can — potentially creating a fresh wave each spring.
Extension officials are hoping to build awareness this year and enlist some help from the public in managing the pest.
For instance, because the worms can be transported in potting soil, mulch or other agricultural products, Little says people should carefully clean the roots of plants, and “keep an eye on what they’re buying.” He encourages individuals to get those types of products from reputable sources, such as places that steam and sterilize mulch. People are also encouraged to clean their gardening equipment or footwear, especially if going to multiple sites.
As for identifying the worms, their clitellum — the lightly colored band that wraps around their body — will often be a milky white color. The worms are bigger than other earthworms, at about 4 to 8 inches long, and have glossier, stiffer skin. They also generally occupy the top inch of soil; other worms are often deeper.
For now, U of I encourages residents to manually remove jumping worms, but the university hopes research will reveal better management methods soon. Experts like Little are digging in for what they expect to be an ongoing fight to manage and coexist with the worms, rather than eradicating them — similar to the way things have played out with other invasive species.
“Trying to slow the expansion or the colonization of them is what we’re looking at,” said Little.
“They’re here and it’s probably something we’ll have to keep a close eye on, as we go along,” he added. “It’s about continued management.”