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New citizen science project targets earthworms

A citizen science survey launched today asks the British public to gather data on the humble earthworm, an 'ecosystem engineer' vital to the health of our soils.

The Earthworm Watch project, run by environmental charity Earthwatch and the Natural History Museum, aims to reveal the impact of humans on earthworms and the soils they live in.

Those interested in taking part can get their hands dirty recording soil properties, such as the amount of carbon in the soil, and performing earthworm counts.

Earthwatch's research manager Dr Alan Jones says:

'The tests are easy to do and are a great way to get outside and find out more about what is going on in your garden, park, playground or allotment.'

By amassing a wealth of data from across the UK, project organisers hope to map the overall distribution and diversity of earthworms and soils.

One major goal of the two-year project is to identify simple techniques that could improve soil health and better support earthworm populations.

Beneficial burrowing

Beneath our feet, earthworms are quietly maintaining the fertility of our soils and protecting us from environmental hazards.

As they burrow through the soil, worms leave gaps in their wake. This creates storage space for rainwater and decreases the risk of flooding on the surface.

Worms also consume organic matter, breaking it down into smaller pieces that are then further decomposed by bacteria and fungi. This releases nutrients into the soil that were previously locked up in the organic matter, enriching the sediment and providing a healthier home for plants.

By carrying organic material into the soil worms also ensure that the carbon it contains stays below ground, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

The Earthworm Watch project will map the key benefits that these 'ecosystem engineers' provide, as well as projecting how those benefits may be affected by future land-use changes.

Investigate your local invertebrates

Earthworms are easy to find in green spaces across the United Kingdom, including your very own back garden or local park. And the project team appreciate all efforts to get stuck in.

Victoria Burton, PhD researcher at the Natural History Museum says:

'By involving the public I can gather more data than I could alone, and from the important urban green spaces which scientists can rarely access.'

Spend an hour surveying your nearest green space and you'll provide valuable data for the project team, as well as earning your name as co-author of their publication in the Biodiversity Data Journal once the project is completed.

If you're interested in taking part in the Earthworm Watch, visit our project page or follow @EarthwormWatch on Twitter.