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Night Crawlers!

Biology of
Night Crawlers









Night Crawlers!

More Biology of Night Crawlers (Lumbricus terrestris)

By Doug Collicutt


Food for Night Crawlers consists of many kinds of organic matter. They eat plant tissue (dead leaves and other plant debris), soil micro-organisms (protozoa, nematodes, bacteria, fungi, etc.), and the remains of larger dead animals. They feed by swallowing organic matter or bits of soil containing organic matter. This passes through their gut and is finally deposited as castings (poop) which the worms pass out when they are at the surface.

Presumably this helps them to keep their tunnels clean and open. 

Night Crawlers as Food!

Robin with worm.
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What eats Night Crawlers, and worms in general? An easier question might be, what animals don't eat worms! Just about anything that likes a bit of animal protein will eat worms: insects, fish, frogs, toads, snakes, mice, moles, raccoons, birds (of all kinds!), bears; it's an enormous list. For animals that weren't originally found in Manitoba, worms now fill a very important slot in the food web. 


Night Crawlers move up and down in the soil profile on a daily basis. They keep to a fairly well defined system of tunnels within their own home range.

By night, Night Crawlers can be found on or near the soil surface, but in daylight they retreat down well below the soil surface, except when it rains. Everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of worms coming out when it rains, but the folklore of worms emerging to avoid drowning in their burrows doesn't hold water. They absorb oxygen directly through their skin, which must be kept moist in order to do so. Worms can survive for a long time in well oxygenated water. So, rather than being a problem to overcome, the abundant surface moisture after a rain may actually represent an opportunity for worms. But why should a seemingly helpless invertebrate want to crawl around on the surface, exposing itself to all manner of predators? What benefits are to be had? Well, precisely what they are doing crawling around on the soil surface at night or after it rains isn't entirely clear -- at least, I wasn't able to find anyone willing to provide a definitive answer. Perhaps they find different kinds of food this way or it may be easier for them to find mates. The "mating theory" -of why worms come out after a rain - suggested by some authors supposes that it is far easier to find a mate, and perform the mating, in the moist 2-dimensional plane represented by the soil surface, than it would be to do so while plowing through the 3-dimensional world beneath the soil. I even thought of something to add weight to this theory. I've never come across tiny worms crawling about after a rain, they all seem to be large, and presumably sexually mature, members of their respective species. If there were non-reproductive benefits to being above ground when it rains, you'd think that the young worms would be out, too.

What do worms do in winter? Good question! I'm sorry, but there isn't a lot of information out there on worms in general, and I couldn't find anything about their over wintering habits. I'll keep looking and post an update. My guess would be that they operate as normal, except they avoid the soil surface once the temperatures dip below freezing. One author suggested that worms are slightly freeze tolerant (to about -3C), but they probably avoid freezing by venturing deeper into the soil. 

Economic Importance

At first glance, you wouldn't think that Night Crawlers, or worms in general, would have significant economic importance. Guess again! Some people earn "big money" from worms. Other people earn a lot of money thanks to the actions of worms. And worms can even cost people money, too.

Worm harvesting is a significant source of income. Although I wasn't able to track down any information about professional harvesting activities (if any) that occur in Manitoba, there is a significant "worm industry" in southern Ontario. The value of Night Crawlers is as fish bait and the chief market for Canadian worms is the avid fisher population of the United States. Apparently, U.S. production doesn't meet it's own needs for bait worms!

There is an excellent web-site with a series of down-loadable information files on Night Crawlers and their economic importance, listed below in the acknowledgments for this article. It is the work of Alan Tomlin at Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada. The figures quoted here are from his work.

Click for more images!

In Ontario, commercial pickers purchase the rights to collect worms at night on agricultural lands and golf courses. In 1980, 370 million worms were exported from Canada, with a Canadian export value of $13 million and an American retail value of $54 million! More recent unofficial estimates put the Canadian export value at closer to $50 million annually. (Anybody know of any more recent estimates? Then drop us a line: Email NatureNorth.) A container of Night Crawlers, about a dozen per bucket, from your local bait shop, which probably originated in southern Ontario, will still cost you $2.00 today, about 15% more than they cost back in 1980. Tomlin estimates that a good worm picker back then could earn as much as $300 per night, based on a price of $24 per 1000 worms, and as much as $12,000 for the worm picking season, from April to late October.

With that kind of money on the line, you'd think that raising Night Crawlers in captivity might be the way to go. But, alas, according to Tomlin, Night Crawlers don't lend themselves to vermi-culture; though this hasn't stopped con-artists from offering "home based Night Crawler raising franchises" to the unwary!

"Vermi", as in vermi-culture, vermicide, vermi-composting, etc., is another Latin term for worm or worm-like.

In a less direct sense worms earn a lot of other people a lot of money, too. Everyone who earns money from the fertility of the soil owes a little to worms of one sort or another. So what exactly do worms do that is so great for the soil? Well, their burrowing helps to churn the soil making it more porous and improving air and water infiltration. They eat, and help to break down organic matter of all sorts; they compost it! Worms produce copious amounts of urine containing urea, which is rapidly broken down into available nitrogen for plants. Their castings (poop) help to neutralize soil pH, make more basic minerals and nutrients available to plants and stimulate microbial populations in the soil. Worm castings can amount to as much as 30 tonnes per hectare per year! That's a lot of poop, and a lot of soil enrichment! Worms enhance this vital resource, all at no charge to the farmers and gardeners who grow our food.

Donate and Feel Great!

So, now you think that worms are wonderful and can do no wrong. Unfortunately, there is a down side to everything. Though, all in all, worms are a positive boon to society, they do play one nefarious role. They can knock a 747 out of the air! (Yes, there was an old lady that swallowed a fly...) Think back to what I mentioned about the habit of worms to crawl around on top of the ground after a rain. And how they become particularly visible when they become stranded on bare concrete or asphalt, like on airport runways. And what eats worms? Birds! And what happens when jet airplane engines suck in birds or birds slam into cockpit windows?

Airports take bird strikes, of which there were more than 50 reported cases at Winnipeg Int'l Airport in 1997, and the factors that lead to them very seriously. Unfortunately, most airports consist of large grassy fields with paved runways occupying a small portion of the ground. After heavy rains, out come the worms and in come the birds, particularly large, flocking birds like gulls, which are already attracted to the safe open spaces that airports represent. Add fine dining to the safe roosting sites that airports represent and it's no wonder that large numbers of gulls and other birds are found there. So, every year airports around the world spend a lot of money trying to get rid of worms, or at least trying to keep them off the runways. Application of the fungicide, Benomyl, is one means used to suppress worm populations around airports. Worms are sensitive to a wide array of pesticides and chemical pollutants. (Dumping such nasty stuff on your lawns does a disservice to the worms and can be counter productive to your goal of a "healthy" lawn.)

There are even people out there spending money researching ways to reduce worm castings on "amenity" grasslands. Can you imagine! Trying to reduce the presence of worms in fancy-dancy lawns so "one doesn't have to see or tread on worm poop". What's the world coming to?

Final Thoughts

It's time to stop thinking of earthworms as just fish bait, or as "ooky" things in the garden. Aristotle called them "the intestines of the soil". They are a vital component of the ecology of our soils and an important rung in terrestrial food webs. Night Crawlers and all the other species of earthworms are fascinating critters and worthy of our respect.

Thanks for learning about Night Crawlers!

Interested in observing Night Crawlers yourself or in your class room? Then follow this link to find out how: Night Crawlers in the Class Room.

Or read up on the Night Crawler's close relative: Leeches!

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