Earthworm Watch was developed by Earthwatch, The Natural History Museum and the Earthworm Society of Britain to better understand the diversity and ecosystem benefits of earthworms. Earthworms recycle decaying organic material to improve soil fertility, they aerate the soil to create space for air and water through their burrowing actions which can prevent flooding and store carbon in fragments in the soil. Earthworm Watch allows the public to help scientists map their diversity and abundance, better understand the human impact on their populations and with further research measure the services these ‘ecosystem engineers’ provide.
Dr. Alan Jones, Research Manager at Earthwatch in his day to day work at Wytham Woods (in collaboration with the University of Oxford), knows all to well how the actions of earthworms along with other invertebrates, bacteria and fungi help to recycle and store carbon. His work in Wytham Woods involves careful study of how carbon flows through the forest in response to a changing climate. This is done via thousands of tree growth measurements , tracking carbon as it is falls in autumn leaves and monitoring carbon decomposition rates from the soil.
Alan recently revealed some of initial results from Earthworm Watch about the correlation between numbers of earthworms and the amount of carbon stored in the soil. Alan hopes that you will continue to gather data and "Join the earthworm revolution, as the future is underground". In his own words, Alan explains his involvement in Earthworm Watch and why earthworms are critical to soil health.
How did you become interested in studying Earthworms?
I started off approaching the science of ecology from the perspective of plant science, which led me rapidly to examine how soils function and interact with plants. Earthworms are an essential part of this subterranean ecosystem – both helping to make it function – and as indicators of soil health themselves.
What got you into a career in science in the first place and how did this lead to your current role?
I started off my science career by looking under stones in our garden as a child. I was always fascinated by the myriad of life that could be found in those dark earthy places. I became captivated by plant growth from a very early age and later on in life rediscovered this interest. I worked as a gardener on a country estate initially, which actually provided an excellent opportunity to understand how plants respond to their environment and soil. I then developed an increasing interest in plant communities during my degree, which led me to a PhD on the subject.
What interests you about earthworms and the project Earthworm Watch?
Earthworm Watch allows us to learn something from an important area of our native landscape that has been under-researched so far – urban and suburban green spaces. Moreover, it allows us to take a peek underground and learn how the soil processes essential to us – soil fertility, carbon storage, water regulation – are altered by increasing urbanisation and our impact on the environment. Earthworm activity is a key component of this.
The data we gain from these surveys will deliver significant amounts of information on the state of our nation’s soils. The strength of Earthworm Watch is that we are able to collect data from a wide range of places across the country – helping to build up a detailed picture of the extent of variation in soil properties and soil health. From this we will begin to understand which factors are most important in influencing soil health.