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Foreign Worm Alert

Aliens are tunneling through North America. Who'd have thought these earth tillers have a downside?

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A tide of exotic earthworms rolls in to the United States every year, meeting the demand of fishermen and gardeners. Canada exports around $20 million worth annually. For the soldiers on the front line — the worm pickers who pull worms from manicured lawns and farmed fields throughout eastern Canada — the work is backbreaking. Yet it brings in quick money.

Inevitably the worm business has attracted hustlers who have decided there is an easier way to get rich on worms. A decade ago in Canada, con artists claimed they had developed an "Asian hybrid" worm especially suited for the angler trade. A starter stock required a "suggested" investment of several thousand dollars, but the market was assured. The promoters promised they'd buy back worms that grew over a certain size. Naturally, few worms measured up. Thus the worm farmers could unload only a fraction of the crop, which the scammers would sell to other "investors."

But the Asian hybrid peddlers didn't bank on the unique talents of Canadian polymath John Reynolds, who has been not only a Ph.D. worm taxonomist but a lawyer and a police inspector. (Reynolds was a university administrator and biology professor until educational cutbacks in the 1980s forced him to switch careers. He sold his worm collection of 100,000 rare squirmers to the Canadian Museum of Nature to pay for law school.) Reynolds led a team of Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Ontario Provincial Police in an investigation of the scam. "I only had to take one look at the so-called Asian hybrids," he says, and the jig was up. The worms in question couldn't and wouldn't grow to the prescribed length.

Now, Reynolds has retired from law enforcement and has returned to "my first love — worms." Apart from identifying specimens that stump other taxonomists and editing the worm journal Megadrilogica, he supports his family by driving an orange 18-wheeler. Armed with his shovel in his cab, he prospects where he can for exotic worms to identify.

As experts have only recently become aware of earthworm depredations, no forest-duff rescue plan is under way. "No one has a clue how we can control them," says Cindy Hale. "This is cutting-edge stuff, and we are only beginning to document the damage."

"Electroshocking or poison are out," says Patrick Bohlen of the Archbold Biological Station in Florida, "because we'd zap everything else." Reintroducing grizzly bears — who apparently savor earthworms — might help, but then some citizens might object. Hiring Canadian worm pickers might make a dent. Skilled workers boast a nightly average of 6,000, and that doesn't take into account the legendary picker who once scored a 22,500-worm night. Hiring foreign labor, however, might open another can of worms with our own pickers: the "grunters" of the Florida Panhandle (Smithsonian, July 1993). We could, of course, head for the garden and the diet of worms that the camp song suggests we eat when no one likes us. "That's as good as anything we can come up with," says Mortensen.

By Adele Conover

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