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April 13, 2006
Contact: Sam James, Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, (785) 864-3062.

KU research associate helps discover worm once thought to be extinct

LAWRENCE — They say extinction is forever. But apparently a Brazilian earthworm and a University of Kansas research associate weren’t listening when they said it.

Sam James, research associate with KU’s Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, was among a team of researchers who discovered a worm in Brazil in February that had been declared extinct.

James was on a National Science Foundation-funded trip to Brazil to research the co-evolution of worms and bacteria. Along with his fellow researchers and worm enthusiasts, he had a feeling that the declaration of extinction for Fimoscolex sporadochaetus was made prematurely.

Brazilian officials declared the worm extinct in 2003. In 1998, the species was considered to be in danger of becoming extinct, as it had not been seen since 1969. The worm was discovered in 1918.

James and his colleagues had two locations in mind in southern Brazil where they wanted to search for the underground crawlers. They were unable to locate either one but didn’t give up. They found a forested area nearby and began digging. They found scores of worms and took them to the lab of George Brown, James’ Brazilian colleague.

After examining the worm under a microscope and comparing it to literature written about it, they determined they had found Fimoscolex sporadochaetus.

James said the declaration of extinction for the pinkish-gray worms was made too hastily.
“There’s no reason (they were declared extinct),” James said. “It’s just nobody looked. We think that whole forest has probably got them crawling around.”

The research team included members from the University of Washington and EMBRAPA, the agricultural research wing of Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, Cattle and Supplying.

Fimoscolex sporadochaetus is an unremarkable worm, quite ordinary looking, which probably contributed to its condemnation to the extinction list. Many people probably had seen them but likely assumed they were just an average worm. It also doesn’t have any apparent agricultural or economic benefit, so it likely wouldn’t have been missed if it were extinct.

“It doesn’t fit into the local culture or economy the way some earthworms do,” James said.
The research team has contacted Brazilian authorities to inform them of the find and will also report their findings to Brazilian scientific journals.

James and Brown are hoping lightning strikes twice. Another, bigger species of worm is considered extinct in Brazil. This supposedly extinct species can grow to be 4 to 6 feet long. They want to find it and have an idea where to look.

“The next time I go to Brazil, George and I want to go looking the same general area,” James said.

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