How Do Worms Work? The Insight Behind Nature’s Earth Movers
If you've been digging in your garden and crossed paths with a worm, you may have wondered how much impact these small creatures have. It may surprise you that worms are responsible for turning over more soil than any other creature on earth. It’s not just a small feat, it’s actually a crucial part of our ecosystem, and without these tiny earth movers, our ecosystem would come to a standstill. So, how exactly do worms work?
The Basics of Worms
First, let's start with the basics: worms are small, elongated creatures that typically live underground. They’re made of segments, or rings, that have muscles that push and pull to help them move and burrow through the soil. The most common type of worm you'll see in your garden is the earthworm, with a grey-pinkish body that's covered in mucus. The mucus helps the worm to maintain moisture and glide through the soil. On average, they range from a few millimeters to up to a meter in length. But size really doesn't matter here as much as their impact.
Origins of Worms
Worms have been around for a very, very long time. In fact, the oldest worm fossil dates back almost 540 million years, and it’s the first fossilized evidence we have of worms in the animal kingdom. As time has gone on, they have evolved and adapted to their environments, which makes them one of the most resilient animals on earth. They're found all over the world and can be adapted to almost any climate and soil type.
So, how do they work? Well, it’s more complicated than you might think. Here are a few ways they impact the soil and its ecosystem:
You may not think soil needs air, but it does. Just like humans need air to breathe, soil needs air so it can contain the right balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. If soil is compacted, like it would be in a heavily used area or after heavy rainfall, the air pockets and channels within the soil become smaller and sometimes turn nonexistent. This can have serious impacts on the organisms that live under the soil’s surface. By using their bodies to burrow through soil, worms create channels that allow air to move more freely. This, in turn, helps soil bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that require oxygen to survive, which are all also part of the ecosystem.
Digesting Organic Matter
Another way worms help the ecosystem is by digesting organic matter such as leaves and dead animals. Worms burrow through the soil and digest organic matter where they find it. Then, they excrete casts (their waste) on the surface of the soil. These casts contain nutrient-rich materials that help stimulate plant growth, which is why many gardeners and farmers keep worm bins to compost soil.
Increasing Water Infiltration
Worms also have an impact on how water infiltrates in the soil. After heavy rainfall, the soil can become clogged and lead to water runoff, which can damage the surrounding ecosystem. Worms help break up the soil, so when water infiltrates, it has a place to go. The channels and air pockets created by worms also help retain water in the soil, which prevents it from traveling too quickly to vegetation that needs water to thrive.
Lastly, worms help sustain the food chain by providing a source of food for animals like birds, fish, and rodents. Scientists estimate that worms help process over 200 tons of soil per acre, each year. This not only increases the soil quality but also helps to increase the population and diversity of animals in an ecosystem.
A Final Thought
Worms are often overlooked, but they play a crucial role in our ecosystem. Earthworms, for example, are not only important to our soil but have been found to contain chemicals that may have disease-fighting properties in humans. Studying worms can give us insight into our own evolution and how we adapt to the changing environment. The next time you see a worm out and about, think about all the ways that they're having a positive impact on the world around you.