As soon as she saw the white flash, Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon knew her shovel had turned up an important discovery. Although others had searched for decades, Sanchez-de Leon had succeeded where they had failed.
She had found a giant Palouse earthworm.
Or to be more precise, she had found part of a giant Palouse earthworm. It took another shovelful of dirt to turn up the rest of the glistening white worm, which she had accidentally cut in two with her blade.
Back at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, where she is a doctoral candidate in soil science, word got around that Sanchez-de Leon had found what many experts were beginning to think had grown extinct.
That would be a pity, because Driloleirus americanus is no ordinary earthworm.
For starters, it's white. And it reportedly smells like a lily. Unlike nearly all the other earthworms in North America, it is believed to be a native.
And it can get big. Really big.
Early reports claim the worm can get up to three feet long. That would make it huge by American standards, but considerably smaller than the 10-foot-long worms that have been found in Australia.
But alas, Sanchez-de Leon's worm is a little guy, or gal, since earthworms are both. It's just six inches long. That would suggest it is a youngster, and thus the species is still reproducing, but no one so far has been able to put an age on it.
But there's no question about what it is.
"It's very different from other earthworms in terms of size and characteristics," Sanchez-de Leon said. "It hasn't been found in so long that I'm glad to see that it's still around."
She found the worm while digging holes in Washington as part of her doctoral dissertation on earthworms. She was working in a vast region of fertile soil that sprawls over about 2 million acres of north-central Idaho and southeastern Washington. Known locally as "the Palouse," it comprises some of the most productive farmland in the country.
And because of that, earthworms are king.
Players in History
Other than being slimy critters that schoolboys like to carry in their pockets, earthworms are the farmer's helpers. They burrow through the soil, allowing oxygen and moisture to reach the roots of plants. They leave their own deposits behind, thus providing natural fertilizer. And they can turn rubbish into food for plants.
And if you happen to be a robin, they're good to eat.
No wonder Charles Darwin observed in 1881 that "it may be doubted whether there are many other creatures which have played so important a part in the history of the world."
So Sanchez-de Leon's discovery was pretty big news.
"There's a couple of reasons why it's important," said her faculty adviser, soils scientist Jodi Johnson-Maynard. "It's pretty rare, and we really don't know much about it from an ecological point of view. We don't know what it does in the prairie system, and what other organisms it interacts with, for example, so finding it is pretty exciting for us."
The finding is also significant because nearly all earthworms in North America are believed to have arrived here with European colonists, hitching a ride in the dirt around the roots of plants from afar. But the giant Palouse earthworm is so different that it is believed to be a native, somehow surviving the little ice age 10,000 years ago that some experts believe should have wiped out any American worms.
So if it is a native, it's a hardy beast and may well be worth propagating.
It has already disproved one legend. Worms are supposed to repair themselves, growing back the part stolen by a robin, for example. And that's usually the case.
But this one didn't. Both sections severed by Sanchez-de Leon died. Exact cause unknown.
The last time a scientist turned up one of these rare worms was a couple of decades ago when James B. Johnson, head of the university's plant, soil and entomological sciences department, found several while digging for beetles in the rolling hills of the Palouse.
Several years later, he returned to the same site, along with 15 students, to collect more. But they found zilch.
The worms are so rare that some folks think the whole thing is a bit of a joke. Their size, for instance, is the stuff that legends are made of.
"I've heard some stories, but it's hard to tell what's true," Johnson-Maynard said. "I've heard a story that a young child was swinging one around and wrapping it around his neck. If you've ever played around with earthworms you know that they stretch considerably, so that might be where that meter-long story comes from. I'm not entirely sure."
But there seems to be little doubt that the Palouse earthworm is a giant, at least compared to other earthworms. Sanchez-de Leon, who hails from Puerto Rico, says even the six-inch worm she found was a lot fatter, and longer, than the other worms she had stumbled across while digging in the dirt.
But what about that smell? Does it really smell like a lily?
Both Sanchez-de Leon and Johnson-Maynard said they didn't detect any lily-like odor. But maybe they just didn't sniff deeply enough.
Even if you love worms, you're probably going to draw the line somewhere.