Jumping worm

An invasive jumping worm, bottom, is shown next to a common nightcrawler. The state Department of Natural Resources said Wisconsin's first jumping worm was discovered in 2013 in the UW-Madison Arboretum.

WISCONSIN DNR

Despite years-long efforts by the Department of Natural Resources, local gardening organizations and many everyday gardeners, invasive jumping worms continue to spread in Dane County.

Jumping worms are not native to Wisconsin — in fact, no worms are native to Wisconsin. They breed quickly and are destructive to soil.

In an email to gardeners, Atwood Community Gardens resource chairwoman Annette Nekola said jumping worms had been identified at four plots in the garden and that they were likely present to some degree in all the garden’s plots.

“I noticed them in my own garden,” Nekola told the State Journal. “They change the texture of the soil. They make it kind of grainy.”

Jumping worms differ from typical earthworms. The jumping worms are from the Amynthas genus, are smaller than earthworms and are more brown or gray than pink. Another difference is their behavior — jumping worms will writhe and thrash when handled, and they’ve even been known to actually jump.

They produce what Lisa Johnson at the UW-Extension called a “soil signature,” leaving behind hard, grainy pellets that look like dry coffee grounds after they feed on the organic matter, leaf litter and mulch in the soil.

Johnson said this dry soil is difficult for plants to hold onto and thrive in, since the worms eat the nutrients needed for plants, fungi and bacteria to grow.

While jumping worms are not going to shy away from infesting a community garden plot, most of the worry surrounding them comes from their potential impact on Wisconsin’s forests, Nekola said.

“Jumping worms are a concern (in forests) because they can consume the litter layer faster than any other earthworm in the state,” conservation biologist Bernadette Williams and Colleen Robinson Klug wrote in an article for the DNR. By destroying the litter layer, the ground does not retain moisture and protect a plant’s roots as it should.

Currently, there is no known way to kill off all the jumping worms, so gardeners’ only option is to prevent the spread of the worm to other parts of their own gardens or to other plots.

The kids’ plots at Troy Community Gardens have also become home to jumping worms, but manager Alisha David found a bright side to the pests: “The chickens have been enjoying them all summer long.”

Nekola said Atwood Community Gardens is trying “to educate people on plant hygiene, watch out for the worms and not put plants in other plots.”

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Hardy Plant Society of Madison canceled its annual spring sale for the first time in two decades to prevent the spread of the unusual worm.

While the worms usually hatch around late June and die off over the winter, the microscopic cocoons they leave can survive the bitter cold of a Wisconsin winter.

It’s unknown how the jumping worms got to Wisconsin from their native Southeast Asia, but their cocoons can travel easily on clothing, shoes, compost and plants themselves.

To learn more about jumping worms, Troy Community Gardens will host a presentation Sept. 21 on how to identify jumping worms and prevent their spread. The event at 6 to 7 p.m. at Festival Foods Community Room, 810 E. Washington Ave., is free and open to the public.

If you spot jumping worms, you can also report them to the DNR by email at invasive.species@wi.gov.

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.