1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Earthworm

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EARTHWORM, the common name of a chaetopod worm found nearly all over the world. Linnaeus recognized only one species of earthworm and named it Lumbricus terrestris. There are now one thousand well-characterized species known from different parts of the world, and the number increases almost daily. The earthworms of England belong entirely to the three genera Lumbricus, Allolobophora and Allurus, which are further subdivided by some systematists; and these genera form the prevalent earthworm fauna of the Palaearctic region and are also very numerous in the Nearctic region. Elsewhere they do not appear to be indigenous, but are replaced by the numerous other genera of the families enumerated in the article Chaetopoda (q.v.). It is a remarkable fact that these genera, comprizing a separate family Lumbricidae, when introduced into tropical and other countries, thrive abundantly and oust the indigenous forms. In gatherings of earthworms from various extra-European countries it is always found that if the collections have been made in cultivated ground and near the coast the worms are of European species; farther inland the native forms are met with. Inasmuch as in every case the Lumbricidae from non-European countries are identical with European species, since it has been shown that these animals are very readily introduced accidentally with plants, &c., and in view of the fact that they are impatient of sea water, it seems clear that the presence of these Lumbricidae in other continents is due to accidental transportation. Most earthworms live in the soil, which they devour as they burrow through it. A few, like their allies the river worms (Limicolae), habitually frequent streams, lakes, &c. One genus, at any rate, viz. Pontodrilus, seeks an unusual environment, and is found in heaps of sea-weed cast up by the sea. The range of this genus is therefore naturally wider than that of other genera which are confined to land masses and cannot cross the sea by their own efforts. It might be inferred, therefore, and the inference is proved by facts, that truly oceanic islands have no indigenous fauna of earthworms, but are inhabited by forms which are identical with those of neighbouring continents, and doubtless, therefore, accidentally introduced.

Like the leeches the earthworms produce cocoons which are a product of the glandular epithelium of the clitellum. In these cocoons are deposited the eggs together with a certain amount of albumen upon which the developing embryos feed. So far as is known, the production of cocoons is universal among earthworms and the remaining Oligochaeta of aquatic habit. The young leave the cocoon as fully formed earthworms in which, however, the genitalia are not fully developed. There is no free living larval stage. Out of a single cocoon emerge a varying number of young worms, the numbers being apparently characteristic of the species. The work of earthworms in aiding in the production of the subsoil and in levelling the surface was first studied by C. Darwin, and has since been investigated by others. This work is partly carried out beneath the surface and partly on the surface, upon which the worms wander at night and eject the swallowed and triturated earth; frequently castings of some height are formed of coiled ropes of agglutinated particles of mould. The indigenous species of Great Britain, about twenty in number, do not grow to a greater length than some 10 in.; but in several tropical countries there are species which grow to a length of from 3 to 6 ft. Thus we have in Natal the gigantic Microchaeta rappi, in Ceylon Megascolex coeruleus, in Australia Megascolides australis, and an equally large form in South America.

(F. E. B.)