Earthworms Across Kansas

Bruce Snyder, associate professor of biology, has been contributing to the permanent collections of Kansas State with the help of primary and secondary school students across the state. Snyder is the creator of Earthworms Across Kansas, a research project dedicated to mapping distribution of earthworm species.

There are 170 species of earthworms in North America, but very little information on where each species can be found. Invasive species have taken over the natural environment of some native worms. Human development has forced worms to move or adapt to living along sidewalks and in yards. The data was incomplete and general at best.

“No one is going and looking for them,” said Snyder.

As a full-time teacher and researcher, Snyder did not have the time to collect samples himself. He received an Engagement Incentive Grant in 2010 through the Center for Engagement and Community Development to engage citizen scientists. He developed worm collection kits for use by K-12 science students around Kansas.  The kits contained vials to preserve specimens, an instruction booklet, labels, and a pencil. Snyder also wrote several lesson plans for science teachers to incorporate the worm collecting into their curriculum. He wanted to encourage the teachers to take their students outside of the classroom and make it easier for teachers to make time for the activity with a pre-made plan.

Snyder distributed 300 kits to public, private and homeschools at the beginning of the 2011 school year. Students collected specimens, preserved them in alcohol, and wrote detailed notes about where and when the samples had been collected. About 100 kits were returned. The completed kits contained over 3,000 earthworms, research material that would have taken a lone scientist years to collect.

“It’s worked really well. The response was better than I thought it would be. We had a lot of excited kids and teachers,” said Snyder.

Snyder and his team identified each worm, took tissue samples, and prepared the worms for long-term storage. They mapped the results on the website, http://goo.gl/LatHDN. The data produced a more complete and accurate picture of where Kansas earthworms can be found.

Tissue samples can be used by future researchers for DNA and molecular work. The samples already helped Snyder and his colleagues Mark Ungerer and Zachary Lounsberry publish a paper titled “Identification of 12 EST-derived SSR markers in Lumbricus rubellus” using data from the collections. The team identified certain repeating strands of DNA markers that could help discover and categorize new populations.

The project may have uncovered an unknown species was collected – a possible new member of the family Moniligastridae. Samples of the new earthworm were found in the Wichita area along I-70 and I-24, as well as west of Kansas City and Tonganoxie.

Lisa Schlatter, a teacher at Olathe Northwest High School, led one of the groups that found unidentified worms. She heard about the project through the district’s science coordinator, and set her ninth-grade biology students to work on preliminary research. They answered questions and read the “Worm Watch Data Sheet” included in the kit. Students devised a process for collecting the earthworms. When they had obtained their samples, they tried as best they could to identify them by body type, size, and color.

The project was easy to implement and integrate into the curriculum.  “Everything we collected was right across from where the school is, in a drainage ditch,” said Schlatter. The exercise helped introduce her class to binomial nomenclature (the scientific naming and classification of animals) and prepared them for future projects she had planned about stimulus response in earthworms. Schlatter took the project yet another step and combined art and science - the final report had to be a cartoon, children’s book, or song about what they had learned.

Snyder received the Excellence in Engagement Award in 2012 from the Provost. He hopes to apply for a larger grant to continue his research.