Want to save the planet? Worry about earthworms, not pandas

These worms are our friends. Image: Getty.

“It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.” The Conversation

– Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881)

Not all wildlife is created equal in our eyes. Take the earthworm, which doesn’t have the widespread appeal of larger, more charismatic animals such as gorillas, tigers or pandas. Worms are never going to get a strong “cute response”, and they won’t ever be the face of a conservation campaign.

But what Darwin rightly recognised is that – panda fans avert your eyes – worm conservation is much more important once we factor in their provision of what we now call “ecosystem services”, which are crucial to human survival. Darwin spent 39 years studying these animals for a good reason. In fact, earthworms have even been ranked the number one most influential species in the history of the planet – above dinosaurs and humans.

Why care about the worm?

Ecologists consider earthworms “keystone species” because of how much they influence the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil. Here are five reasons why:

1) Earthworms are recyclers. They play a crucial role in breaking down organic matter and fertilising the soil, simply through their constant eating and pooping (about 1.5 times their body weight a day). What comes out the other end – known as a worm cast – is full of nutrients and bacteria that are beneficial for plants. Scientists have measured up to five times the amount of key nutrients in worm casts compared to surrounding soil.

A study in Hawaii found that replacing a portion of standard fertiliser with vermicompost (compost from worm casts) increased yields of crops such as tomatoes and strawberries by 30%. It’s hard to generate industrial amounts of worm cast, of course, and vermicompost remains more expensive than commercial fertiliser. But it’s an intriguing example of how earthworms can help humans.


2) Earthworms are great “soil engineers”. As they move through the soil, earthworms loosen and mix it up, helping to aerate and drain it. This brings nutrients to the surface, making the soil more fertile, and helps prevent flooding and erosion.

3) Earthworms are barometers of soil health and toxicity. They’re very sensitive to soil pollutants such as pesticide residues or unwanted heavy metals (zinc, lead and so on), and they are badly affected by changes in land use such as deforestation to clear the way for intensive farming. This means the health of local worms is proving to be a useful tool to assess the impact of different land usage and pollutants.

4) Juicy earthworms are an important food source. They are protein-rich and feed a number of animals, such as the European badger.

5) Earthworms can help repair damaged soil and may provide solutions to man-made problems. Research suggests that earthworms could help to clean up land contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as lead.

Other studies show how earthworms can speed up the restoration of degraded land in the tropics, while research in northern Vietnam found that reduced earthworm diversity due to land use change also had a significant knock on effect on soil fertility, water drainage and soil erosion.

So, earthworms are our underground allies – if we treat them right. Earthworms make it possible for us to live on the planet, simply by eating and pooping, and ploughing up, ventilating and fertilising the soil along the way.

I disagree with this article.” ImagE: Harvey Barrison/Flickr/creative commmons.

Climate change and human intervention are fast-tracking the world’s loss of biodiversity. The plight of the tiger in India and the orangutan in Indonesia are well known, but scientists are also becoming concerned about earthworms and other animals that we are less familiar with, but which we can’t afford to lose.

If pandas go extinct, it will be very sad. But, a world without earthworms? Arguably without earthworms in our soils, life could vanish pretty quickly. We would have less food, more pollution, and more flooding.

No matter how cute a panda looks, it is Darwin’s “lowly” earthworms that are doing dirty, but crucial, work in the soil below.

Sarah Johnson is undertaking a PhD in environmental science at King's College London.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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