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Worms are widely known as being good for vegetation. Whether it be a backyard garden or a deep-rooted forest, they are commonly viewed as essential for enriched soil and abundance of life.

But one worm is slowly changing that narrative — meet the Asian jumping worm.

First discovered as an invasive species in the United States in 2008, this little worm eats away at the top layers of the soil, rather than building channels for plants to take root as other worms do. 

"Unlike an earthworm, this is not creating channels and it's not helping plants get nutrients," said Allison Zach, the invasive species program specialist with the Nebraska Invasive Species Program. "All it's doing is it's breaking down that top layer and it's already led to succession stopping in forests."

Jumping worms feed on leaf litter and mulch, and the soil they leave behind is dry and grainy like coffee grounds, which deprives trees and other plants of essential nutrients.

It's unclear exactly how the worm, which has historically called Japan and the Korean Peninsula home, arrived in the United States, although most believe that it was brought by boat in a plant shipment and spread from there.

Samuel Chan, a professor at Oregon State University, is one of the leading experts in the country on the Asian jumping worm. According to Chan, the first discovery in the United States of the worm was in Tennessee. There are now confirmed cases across the country, from Oregon to Wisconsin and now Nebraska's next-door neighbor, Iowa. 

"We feel that it may be in even more states, but in low populations," Chan said. "People might see it but just think it's a normal earthworm. Once you see it's movement, though, it's very distinctive." 

The Asian jumping worm has its name because it literally does jump. Although their normal movement in the soil is slow, they can move very fast, like a snake, according to Chan. 

And as a result the worms are spreading fast. They reproduce quickly and have greater flexibility in their diet than other worms. Humans are also to blame for the rapid spread of the invasive species. 

"It's being readily marketed as a fish bait because it will live 30-plus minutes under water and it likes to wiggle around," Zach said. "The problem is they reproduce quickly and their eggs spread very easily by getting on things like boots or equipment."

Because the Asian jumping worm is a relatively new invasive species compared to others such as the Emerald Ash Borer, the financial implications are difficult to pinpoint at this stage.

"I can't tell you exactly what the impact would be," Chan said. "You can basically add up all of Nebraska's agriculture as it relates to growing crops and you could figure out what that could be."

Besides the financial problems, the worms create a domino effect that many might not consider. 

"For example, in the Smokey Mountains, they are losing animals that depend on invertebrates as their diet," Zach said. "These worms eat so much that all the invertebrates die off and that goes up the food chain."

One of the more significant issues surrounding the worm is lack of awareness. The general public is mostly either unaware of the worm's existence or unable to identify it when they see it. That poses a challenge for wildlife experts. 

"For this issue, awareness is the most important thing," Chan said. "Luckily, they're very easy to recognize once you look at their movement."

Chan added that most worms won't travel more than a mile on their own over the span of their lifetime. Therefore, it's up to humans to stop the spread of these worms. 

According to Zach, the most important thing people can do to prevent the spread is to recognize and report. If you spot an Asian jumping worm, she urges you to call the Nebraska Invasive Species Program at 402-472-3133 or report it through their website, neinvasives.com.

"Everyone has access to the internet and that's a nice way to learn," Zach said. "If people reach out to me, I can reach out to the right people so that we can catch it early."

To learn more about the Asian jumping worm and prevention tactics, you can view a presentation by Chan at https://bit.ly/2tE6ZDS.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or zpenrice@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zacharypenrice1

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