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February 12, 2009

Worm Grunting (Image 3)

Worm grunter Gary Revell at work in the field. Gary and his wife Audrey have been collecting earthworms in the Apalachicola National Forest for much of their lives and they provide yearly demonstrations at the annual Sopchoppy Worm Grunting Festival. [Image 3 of 3 related images. Back to Image 1.]

More about this Image
Ken Catania, an associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, wanted to study the biological basis for worm grunting. Catania found that a population of the eastern American mole (Scalopus aquaticus) inhabits the area where the earthworms are collected. The earthworms have a pronounced escape response from the moles consisting of rapidly exiting their burrows to flee across the soil surface. But why, Catania wondered, do the earthworms suddenly exit their burrows in response to vibrations, thus exposing themselves to predators? Recordings of vibrations generated by bait collectors and moles suggest that "worm grunters" unknowingly mimic digging moles. An alternative possibility too is that the worms interpret the vibrations as rain, and surface to avoid drowning. However, this theory has not been supported.

Previous investigations have revealed that both wood turtles and herring gulls vibrate the ground to elicit earthworm escapes, indicating that a range of predators may exploit the predator-prey relationship between earthworms and moles. In addition to revealing a novel escape response that may be widespread among soil fauna, the results show that humans have played the role of "rare predators" in exploiting the consequences of a sensory arms race. To learn more about Catania's investigation, see the Plos One story, "Worm Grunting, Fiddling, and Charming--Humans Unknowingly Mimic a Predator to Harvest Bait." [The research was funded by a MacArthur Foundation fellowship and a National Science Foundation CAREER award (IBN 02-38364).] (Date of Image: 2008)

Credit: Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University

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