Castings of a similar nature continued to be ejected from the burrow during the whole of the following day.

As doubts have been expressed by some writers whether worms ever swallow earth solely for the sake of making their burrows, some additional cases may be given. A mass of fine reddish sand, 23 inches in thickness, left on the ground for nearly two years, had been penetrated in many places by worms; and their castings consisted partly of the reddish sand and partly of black earth brought up from beneath the mass. This sand had been dug up from a considerable depth, and was of so poor a nature that weeds could not grow on it. It is therefore highly improbable that it should have been swallowed by the worms as food. Again in a field near my house the castings frequently consist of almost pure chalk, which lies at only a little depth beneath the surface; and here again it is very improbable that the chalk should have been swallowed for the sake of the very little organic matter which could have percolated into it from the poor overlying pasture. Lastly, a casting thrown up through the concrete and decayed mortar between the tiles, with which the now ruined aisle of Beaulieu Abbey had formerly been paved, was washed, so that the coarser matter alone was left. This consisted of grains of quartz, micaceous slate, other rocks, and bricks or tiles, many of them from 1/20 to 1/10 inch in diameter. No one will suppose that these grains were swallowed as food, yet they formed more than half of the casting, for they weighed 19 grains, the whole casting having weighed 33 grains. Whenever a worm burrows to a depth of some feet in undisturbed compact ground, it must form its passage by swallowing the earth; for it is incredible that the ground could yield on all sides to the pressure of the pharynx when pushed forwards within the worm's body.

That worms swallow a larger quantity of earth for the sake of extracting any nutritious matter which it may contain than for making their burrows, appears to me certain. But as this old belief has been doubted by so high an authority as Claparede, evidence in its favour must be given in some detail. There is no a priori improbability in such a belief, for besides other annelids, especially the Arenicola marina, which throws up such a profusion of castings on our tidal sands, and which it is believed thus subsists, there are animals belonging to the most distinct classes, which do not burrow, but habitually swallow large quantities of sand; namely, the molluscan Onchidium and many Echinoderms. {37}

If earth were swallowed only when worms deepened their burrows or made new ones, castings would be thrown up only occasionally; but in many places fresh castings may be seen every morning, and the amount of earth ejected from the same burrow on successive days is large. Yet worms do not burrow to a great depth, except when the weather is very dry or intensely cold. On my lawn the black vegetable mould or humus is only about 5 inches in thickness, and overlies light-coloured or reddish clayey soil: now when castings are thrown up in the greatest profusion, only a small proportion are light coloured, and it is incredible that the worms should daily make fresh burrows in every direction in the thin superficial layer of dark-coloured mould, unless they obtained nutriment of some kind from it. I have observed a strictly analogous case in a field near my house where bright red clay lay close beneath the surface. Again on one part of the Downs near Winchester the vegetable mould overlying the chalk was found to be only from 3 to 4 inches in thickness; and the many castings here ejected were as black as ink and did not effervesce with acids; so that the worms must have confined themselves to this thin superficial layer of mould, of which large quantities were daily swallowed. In another place at no great distance the castings were white; and why the worms should have burrowed into the chalk in some places and not in others, I am unable to conjecture.

Two great piles of leaves had been left to decay in my grounds, and months after their removal, the bare surface, several yards in diameter, was so thickly covered during several months with castings that they formed an almost continuous layer; and the large number of worms which lived here must have subsisted during these months on nutritious matter contained in the black earth.

The lowest layer from another pile of decayed leaves mixed with some earth was examined under a high power, and the number of spores of various shapes and sizes which it contained was astonishingly great; and these crushed in the gizzards of worms may largely aid in supporting them. Whenever castings are thrown up in the greatest number, few or no leaves are drawn into the burrows; for instance the turf along a hedgerow, about 200 yards in length, was daily observed in the autumn during several weeks, and every morning many fresh castings were seen; but not a single leaf was drawn into these burrows.

The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms Page 23

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin

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