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Creature Comforts: The way the worm turns … or does not

Creature Comforts

Thanks to our dachshund’s, Walter, dual biological alarm systems, I’m ordinarily up before the sun each morning. Walter’s bladder and tummy alarms are reliable to a fault.

In fact, it’s not unusual for me to commence my morning walk or bike ride in time to witness the early bird quite literally catching the worm. What’s sadder than seeing a hapless early worm being speared and swallowed by the early bird? A late worm. “Late” referring to both “late in time” and “recently deceased,” lying abandoned and alone on the sidewalk.

Disclaimer: Although I did dissect earthworms while studying their anatomy and physiology years ago for biology classes in my pre-veterinary school days, I do not profess to be very well-versed in earthworm behavior. Let’s just say, it hasn’t come up much in clinical practice. Whatever compels a worm to crawl out of its safe hidey hole beneath the ground and onto the middle of the sidewalk or bike path, placing itself in utter peril, mystifies me.

Even more perplexing is how this same creature lacks the instinct for self preservation (or, perhaps nerve endings) such that it fails to turn back to whence it came and move out of the intense summer sun. Instead, it becomes worm jerky by mid morning, and ultimately a desiccated, crispy worm chip by early afternoon.

Apparently, once an earthworm finds its way onto the pavement, it is hopelessly lost, and if it’s not unlucky enough to be consumed by some hungry animal or squashed underfoot, it gives up and bakes itself to death in the hot sun.

Some things about earthworms make them seem a little alien to us mammals. Not only do earthworms thrive on eating dirt, but they possess no eyes, no ears, no legs, yet have multiple hearts. But wait, there’s more!

Quiz: How do you tell a male from a female earthworm?

Answer: Yes. And no. Ok, it was a trick question. Think genderless names for earthworms… not that they’ll be offended… probably. Earthworms seem pretty chill and I don’t imagine they’d get too excited about inconsequential faux pas. Earthworms are true hermaphrodites — each individual earthworm possesses both male and female “parts,” but must meet up with other earthworms to exchange gametes and mix up the wormy gene pool. Those wacky invertebrates — don’t they do the darnedest things?

Any avid gardener or successful farmer will attest: Earthworms (when alive and healthy) are extremely beneficial to have around.

Professionally, earthworms themselves aren’t of much interest to me (my area of focus is limited to the care of creatures that have a vertebral column.)

Earthworms do play host to a variety of parasitic organisms that make them seem that much more yucky. Free-living worms infested with parasitic worms — double yuck! Also, given where they reside and what they consume (manure, soil) earthworms may be contaminated with harmful bacteria. Triple yuck!

Indiscriminately eating worms (though a delicacy in some parts of the world) can get one into some trouble, to be sure, particularly if consumed unwashed and raw. If you offer me a big, fresh bowl of squishy earthworms for lunch, I will politely refuse, and never join you for a meal, again. You can go on about earthworms having essential proteins and amino acids and being chock full of vital nutrients — um, NO, thanks.

That said, a great many creatures of land, air and water consume earthworms as a regular feature of their diets. Reptiles, amphibians, birds (not just the early birds, but all sorts), and many mammals like pigs, mink and raccoons will eat earthworms happily. There is obviously a good reason worms are used for fishing bait — fish love ’em, too! Interestingly, I have witnessed my dogs eat a great many gross things before I could stop them, but have never observed them ingesting earthworms. They’ve been known to eat several different kinds of animal dung, moldy trash and rotting animal carcass (ingesta that have often quickly become egesta, usually at the foot of my bed) — and yet, seem to have discriminating-enough tastes to reject fresh, wiggling earthworms. Whatever.

One less chance for acquiring a giant kidney worm, which, BTW, is the stuff of nightmares!

Kevin, our 9-year-old dachshund and chief troublemaker, may not eat them, but he does especially enjoy rubbing his body all over the dried up earthworms on our basketball court. Grinds ’em into his collar, neck and head “real good.” Apparently, worm chips smell nice to Kevin. FYI: They do not smell nice to THIS human. And while some well-meaning entrepreneurial sort might read this and think, “Hmm — an all-natural, non-GMO, grain-free cologne for dogs that smells like earthworms, how can I manufacture and market that?”

Please don’t.

— Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column is published every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at life@sungazette.com.

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