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Worming out of a problem
ON A patch of dairy country near Korumburra, a delicate and unprecedented operation has been taking place.
A group of threatened giant Gippsland earthworms, living in the path of a planned road, is being moved.
It is the first time scientists have tried to move an entire colony of the creatures, which can grow up to 1.5 metres long.
On the last day of the operation yesterday, the team declared their mission a success, having moved more than 600. However, there was a 20 per cent mortality rate.
Alan Yen, the Department of Primary Industries' statewide leader of invertebrate sciences, has been co-ordinating the project. Dr Yen said it was difficult to find the worms before digging. Ultrasound didn't work, "so we just had to roll our sleeves up. Sometimes, when you are close, you can hear them digging through the ground. It sounds a bit like a toilet flushing."
For two months, a dozen people have been carefully extricating the worms from their burrows, which spread over 25 square metres and can be up to two metres deep. It's a task requiring the steady hand of a surgeon — a worm will bleed to death if cut and, in some cases, it has taken diggers more than an hour to chip soil away from around them.
Zoologist Lee Ahern said removing them from their tunnels had been a challenge. "Sometimes there can be a few in the same place and it's like snakes and ladders," he said.
Mr Ahern said the worms, found exclusively in a 30-square-kilometre area in Gippsland, behaved more like vertebrates than invertebrates, having a long life cycle and low birth rates. "Working with these animals is fabulous."
The move, about 500 metres uphill from their original home, has given scientists a chance to collect data. Each worm was weighed and measured to help determine age and life expectancy before being carried in trays to newly dug plots.
Invertebrate ecologist Beverley Van Praagh, who dedicated her PhD to the species, said the worms aerated soil and helped water flow. But their value was not just in their practicality.
"Some have more character than others, we had one quite aggressive one," she said. "Normally they are very gentle, graceful animals. They are, I think, quite beautiful."