I am walking along, listening to a podcast. I look down and encounter a fellow animal.
Oh no, look at that worm.
It is wriggling…writhing…on the sun-bathed sidewalk.
Should I move it?
You smug Homo sapiens, thinking you know what’s best for nature. What if a certain number of worms are supposed to fry on the sidewalk? What if that’s the only potential meal today for a sick, hungry bird who can’t forage efficiently?
But sidewalks aren’t nature! Humans have already meddled, paving over worm habitat so we can walk around without getting dirt on our shoes!
The worm looks so hot…is it baking?
An image flashes in my mind of the contents of a raw egg just beginning to brown and bubble in a hot skillet. I pick the worm up and put in on a little patch of dirt in the grass. A woman walking her dog across the street observes the whole thing and gives me a quizzical look.
I remember years ago, after a storm in Tampa, when I walked around the block doing the same- shuttling worms from concrete to earth. I had just heard that parable about the person who threw starfish back into the ocean after a storm. When they were questioned as to whether or not they could actually make a difference to all those starfish they replied, “I made a difference to that one!”
So what if people think I’m strange? I helped the worm.
Did I help the worm??? What if it was going somewhere with a purpose and now I’ve caused it to waste precious energy? I don’t even know which end of the worm is the butt and which is the head! I used to know… I’m going to cut my walk short and go read about worms…
Here is what I found out. While it is common for worms to come above ground when conditions are very wet, it is still a unclear why this worm was trying to cross a sidewalk in hot, dry weather. For a while, people thought worms were flooded from their burrows during heavy rain, but they can actually survive for days completely submerged in water. They need moisture to survive. There are now a couple of guesses as to why worms surface during/after rain. First, they might actually be able to travel farther above ground when it is really wet than they can in saturated soil. Another hypothesis is that the vibrations of raindrops mimic the vibrations made by underground predators like moles, so the confused worms surface to avoid being eaten. But this wasn’t a wet day! Even if the worm was intentionally on the move, it might have dried out on the sidewalk, right? Then again, researchers at Colorado State University discovered that worms can survive weeks of drought by curling up into a knotted ball and sealing themselves in with their own mucus, a cool adaptation called estivation. But worms usually do this underneath the protection of the soil not out on the sidewalk as if preparing themselves as tasty morsels on a silver platter!
What was the impact of my behavior on the life of this little worm? I still don’t know, but I learned a lot. This brief glimpse into my mind is a perfect example of the way I overthink many of my own and other people’s interactions with animals and nature. Even though it was ‘just a worm’ *cringe* it made me aware of how we make decisions about the well-being of other creatures far more often than I think we realize. Another great example is what you do if you find a baby bird. Is the bird a nestling or a fledgling? Is leaving it alone and letting the parents continue to feed it until it can fly a better option than taking the bird elsewhere? Often, the answer to this question is yes. What should you do if you come across a turtle in the middle of the road? Did you know you should always help the turtle across in the direction it was already heading or it’s just going to turn around and mosey back into oncoming traffic? My point here is: attempt to inform yourself. We are not all wildlife rescuers. We won’t always make the very best decision even with the very best of intentions. We can aim to think critically about the situation, consider perspectives of the world that are other-than-human, and then strive to do more good than harm.
As for the head-end versus the butt-end of a worm? The head/mouth is the end closer to the little swollen band part called the clitellum. I prefer to think of it as the worm’s turtleneck 🙂