In the 1870s, surveyors around Warragul found an animal that they thought may have been a snake. They sent it to the then Director of the National Museum of Victoria, Professor Frederick McCoy, who described it as a new species of earthworm and named it Megascolides australis. Its common name is the Giant Gippsland Earthworm.
Giant Gippsland EarthwormPhotographer: Alan Yen / Source: Museum Victoria
Although the body lengths of adult specimens average around under one metre, the body can expand and contract, and lengths of over two metres have been recorded. However, body length is not an accurate measure of size, and fresh body weight is more reliable; adults average around 200 g.
Even though it is a large species, it is not often seen because it lives deep in the soil and never comes to the surface unless flushed out by heavy rain. It is also very restricted in its distribution. It is only found in the Bass River Valley of South Gippsland, in an area of about 100,000 hectares bounded by the towns of Loch, Korumburra and Warragul. However, within that area, it is very patchy in its distribution and is found in a particular type of blue-grey clay within a short distance of water courses, soaks and springs.
The worm burrows can occur from just below the soil surface to a depth of 1-1.5 m with the worms occurring at a median depth of about half a metre. The Giant Gippsland Earthworm, like any other species of native Australian earthworms, leaves its casts underground in its burrows, and the conical shaped entrances to land crayfish burrows are often mistakenly identified as earthworm casts.
Before European settlement, South Gippsland was predominantly covered by tall, wet eucalypt forest. This vegetation type was extensively cleared for farming leaving small, isolated patches of vegetation. Despite some revegetation undertaken throughout Gippsland; the worms current distribution range remains primarily cleared farmland. The species has survived this massive change because it can go deep into the soil. However, it is considered a threatened species because its range has declined since European settlement. The Giant Gippsland Earthworm is listed as a threatened and protected species under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988, and is also listed as vulnerable under the Commonwealth Endangered Species Act.
Beverley Van Praagh holding a Giant Gippsland Earthworm during a Museum Victoria fieldtrip c. 1980.Photographer: Rodney Start / Source: Museum Victoria
Other factors that make the Giant Gippsland Earthworm prone to threat are its slow developmental rate and low reproductive rate. The worms produce a large egg capsule, about 4-7 cm in length, containing a single young which can take over a year to incubate. Baby worms are already 20 cm long when they hatch, but may take several years to reach adulthood. Giant Gippsland Earthworms live in a complex system of burrows and there are still many aspects of its biology and ecology that we know little about.
A Giant Gippsland Earthworm eggPhotographer: Alan Henderson / Source: Museum Victoria
Taylor, S., Crosthwaite, J. & Backhouse, G. 1997. Giant Gippsland Earthworm Megascolides australis. Natural Resources and Environment Flora & Fauna Guarantee Action Statement No. 77. 7 pp.
Van Praagh, B. 1992. The biology and conservation of the Giant Gippsland Earthworm Megascolides australis McCoy, 1878. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 24 (12):1363-1367.
Hi Prasad - This species has been researched by expert staff, and yes, believe it or not, it is a giant earthworm!
Thanks for your enquiry about the reproductive habits of these creatures. The Giant Gippsland Earthworm is actually an hermaphrodite that requires two individuals to reproduce.
Hi Paul - Museum Victoria offers a free specimen identification service however our curators do need to be able to view specimens before offering an identification! You can read about our identification guidelines and submit an enquiry via our Ask the Experts webpage.
Hi Georgia. Museum Victoria offers a free identification service. Before submitting your enquiry online via Ask the Experts please read our identification guidelines. Also, please do send us your images with the enquiry!
Hi Joanne, you may find the following website useful for your research: http://museumvictoria.com.au/pages/7632/science-reports-2-5.pdf
Kiki, earthworms eat a wide variety of organic products.
Hi Steve, we don't know that anyone has studied when Megascolides australis evolved. Most of the work on this threatened species has looked at distribution and lifecycle. One of our staff in the Palaeontology Department has said that he believes the family Megascolecidae, (one group of earthworms, to which the Giant Gippsland Earthworm belongs) is quite old, as it has a “Gondwanan” distribution, indicating the family possibly evolved at the latest some time in the Mesozoic (possibly older than 200 million years) when the continents were still connected. The Giant Gippsland Earthworm itself may be a much younger species than this but we just don't know. It is likely to be highly adapted to its habitat, so knowing how long the habitat has existed may give an idea of the species’ age. Due to the lack of skeleton and the environment they live in, they almost never fossilise. I doubt that any work on genetics has been done to get an estimate of its origin.
Hi Victoria, it is unlikely that species that are closely related to the Giant Gippsland Earthworm are living in North America. The Giant Gippsland Earthworm, Megascolides australis belongs to the family Megascolecidae, a mainly Southern Hemisphere group, which occurs in Australia, South and Central America, Africa and south-east Asia. There may well be unrelated large species of worm in North America.
Hi Laranda, Laliana, Rocio, Haila and MyLadys,
Giant Gippsland Earthworms are only found in Australia, as mentioned in the main text. They are not dangerous; in fact they are in danger of becoming extinct due to the activities of humans. Except for their extreme size, GGEs are similar to any other earthworm. They are estimated to live for twenty years, but this has not been confirmed. As for how long they have been on earth, this has been answered above (see 24 Sept 2010).
However, since the Giant Gippsland earthworm & the common garden worm (of which there are many species) belong to different families, there will also be some physiological differences between them. So essentially, the Giant Gippsland Earthworm is a scaled up segmented worm but with their own unique set of characters which separates them for common earthworms.
Early last year a poster from Robertson(cf below) was to send in some pictures of a large worm for identification. I am a Vet whose practice is near Robertson and we have problems with dogs digging holes to pull up these large worms. Many times the owners think the dogs are digging from boredom or stress but often they are hearing these noisy worms under the ground and digging them up- I would love to know the name of this worm in the Robertson area if possible. many thanks
Georgia Roberts 08 Feb 2010 14:27 Hello. We have had a lot of rain recently (Robertson, NSW) and yesterday I found two huge worms in one of our paddocks. I have taken images. One was dead, and only 25-30cm in length, but the other was still alive and around 45-55cm. Is it known what sort of worms these might have been? I can send images. Best wishes, Georgia Roberts
Hi Megan - the Museum you describe is now called Wildlife Wonderland and can be contacted at (03) 5678-2222. It did contain a giant earthworm (through which visitors could crawl), as well as other giant earthworm exhibits, but current information concentrates on other exhibits. A phone call before your visit would be our suggestion, to obtain up to date information on the display.
Hope this helps
Please refer to the answer we gave Steve on the 24th September 2010. Even though the answer is two years old, it is still relevant as we still don’t have anyone that has studied how and when the Megascolides australis evolved.
Hi William, according to the National Recovery Plan for the Giant Gippsland Earthworm, Megascolides australis. There are no data on which to base population estimates or trends. This is mainly the result of the difficulties inherent in studying a subterranean species. This report does provide some interesting information on what we do know of the species and the threats it is facing.
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Thanks Caitlin for your keen eyes - we are on to it, hopefully the updated information will be published on the next scheduled page refresh