Sea otter voyeurs! a window on a Monterey Bay coastal research preserve
Oct25

Sea otter voyeurs! a window on a Monterey Bay coastal research preserve

Otter-cam peers into protected Elkhorn Slough.

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Great Lakes Worm Watch

By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer. RYAN Hueffmeier wants to talk to you about the humble earthworm. Trusty fish bait, friend to schoolchildren, gardeners and composters, the earthworm is no friend to the hardwood forests of the Great Lakes. It is a European invader, and its decomposition services, well known to gardeners, are not helpful to the forest ecosystems that have evolved without them. Hueffmeier is program coordinator for Great Lakes Worm Watch, a citizen science project based at the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota, and he is well versed in explaining the earthworm situation to audiences of a broad range of ecological and vermicological familiarity. There are no earthworms native to the northern reaches of North America. Land that lay under heavy ice during the last ice age lost any worms it may have had (the fossil record is thin on soft-bodied creatures). Native earthworms do trawl the soils farther south, but their advance is slow; they had not re-colonized the upper Midwest and Canada at the time Europeans began to colonize North America. Researchers suspect the worms hitchhiked across the Atlantic in the ballast of ships and the root balls of imported shrubs. Earthworms have now arrived in the Great Lakes vicinity—not everywhere, some earthworm-free places remain, but the worms are spreading, and humans are their vector. Ecologists can sometimes see the advance of the worm front in the drought-like symptoms of infested forests. The European species seem to do well everywhere they go, even pushing into the historical territory of native earthworms. To understand how earthworms affect the ecosystems of the Great Lakes, it would be great to know where the worms are and are not, and in what abundance and species variety. But sampling all of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Indiana is a vastly labor intensive task. “The beautiful thing about citizen science is that you can get a lot of people to collect a lot of data,” said Hueffmeier. UM researcher Cindi Hale chartered the project in 2000 as Minnesota Worm Watch, and it has expanded to the entire Great Lakes region and beyond. They now have so much data that the problem has become how to organize and display it without a dedicated data manager on the job. By next year, they hope to have developed a more muscular interactive map, interconnecting different kinds of information. But their website has plenty of information and project ideas to poke through already— and there is still plenty of territory to cover on the way to understanding earthworm ecology and gaining public help in managing the spread of the worm....

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