By Joseph Robertia
Anyone who thinks their desk is a mess should see Deanna Saltmarsh’s workspace. It’s one thing to be piled with stacks of paper and associated office debris. It’s quite another to be buried in more than 300 worms.
“I’ve collected 336 worms, to be exact,” she said. “My friends bet me I’d end up being called ‘the worm lady,’ and within the first two weeks that’s what everyone was calling me. I knew it would happen.”
Saltmarsh earned her moniker this summer while conducting field research and collecting samples of earthworms from the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge as part of a graduate project through Alaska Pacific University, in Anchorage. She said she is actually more interested in the effects the worms are having on the environment, than in the worms themselves.
“I’m really interested in invasive species in general,” she said.
This may sound confusing to anyone with a green thumb, but Saltmarsh said that while worms in a garden are a good thing, they may not be as beneficial for the environment outside raised beds and planting boxes, for much the same reasons.
In gardens, earthworms aerate the soil, mix organic material into the soil profile and process coarse organic debris into a form that can increase nutrient availability. But these soil-altering abilities also mean that when they successfully invade regions naturally devoid of earthworms, something is likely to change.
“They’re good in an agricultural setting, but not so good in a forest ecosystem,” she said. “They can limit plant species diversity and plant species richness, they can change nutrient cycling to produce more grasses and weeds, and they can lend to erosion by their consuming of the organic material from the forest floor, which can leave bare earth and plants with their roots exposed.” Continue reading