As worms line their burrows with their castings, and as the burrows penetrate to a depth of 5 or 6, or even more feet, some small amount of the humus-acids will be carried far down, and will there act on the underlying rocks and fragments of rock. Thus the thickness of the soil, if none be removed from the surface, will steadily though slowly tend to increase; but the accumulation will after a time delay the disintegration of the underlying rocks and of the more deeply seated particles. For the humus-acids which are generated chiefly in the upper layer of vegetable mould, are extremely unstable compounds, and are liable to decomposition before they reach any considerable depth. {66} A thick bed of overlying soil will also check the downward extension of great fluctuations of temperature, and in cold countries will check the powerful action of frost. The free access of air will likewise be excluded. From these several causes disintegration would be almost arrested, if the overlying mould were to increase much in thickness, owing to none or little being removed from the surface. {67} In my own immediate neighbourhood we have a curious proof how effectually a few feet of clay checks some change which goes on in flints, lying freely exposed; for the large ones which have lain for some time on the surface of ploughed fields cannot be used for building; they will not cleave properly, and are said by the workmen to be rotten. {68} It is therefore necessary to obtain flints for building purposes from the bed of red clay overlying the chalk (the residue of its dissolution by rain-water) or from the chalk itself.

Not only do worms aid directly in the chemical disintegration of rocks, but there is good reason to believe that they likewise act in a direct and mechanical manner on the smaller particles. All the species which swallow earth are furnished with gizzards; and these are lined with so thick a chitinous membrane, that Perrier speaks of it, {69} as "une veritable armature." The gizzard is surrounded by powerful transverse muscles, which, according to Claparede, are about ten times as thick as the longitudinal ones; and Perrier saw them contracting energetically. Worms belonging to one genus, Digaster, have two distinct but quite similar gizzards; and in another genus, Moniligaster, the second gizzard consists of four pouches, one succeeding the other, so that it may almost be said to have five gizzards. {70} In the same manner as gallinaceous and struthious birds swallow stones to aid in the trituration of their food, so it appears to be with terricolous worms. The gizzards of thirty-eight of our common worms were opened, and in twenty-five of them small stones or grains of sand, sometimes together with the hard calcareous concretions formed within the anterior calciferous glands, were found, and in two others concretions alone. In the gizzards of the remaining worms there were no stones; but some of these were not real exceptions, as the gizzards were opened late in the autumn, when the worms had ceased to feed and their gizzards were quite empty. {71}

When worms make their burrows through earth abounding with little stones, no doubt many will be unavoidably swallowed; but it must not be supposed that this fact accounts for the frequency with which stones and sand are found in their gizzards. For beads of glass and fragments of brick and of hard tiles were scattered over the surface of the earth, in pots in which worms were kept and had already made their burrows; and very many of these beads and fragments were picked up and swallowed by the worms, for they were found in their castings, intestines, and gizzards. They even swallowed the coarse red dust, formed by the pounding of the tiles. Nor can it be supposed that they mistook the beads and fragments for food; for we have seen that their taste is delicate enough to distinguish between different kinds of leaves. It is therefore manifest that they swallow hard objects, such as bits of stone, beads of glass and angular fragments of bricks or tiles for some special purpose; and it can hardly be doubted that this is to aid their gizzards in crushing and grinding the earth, which they so largely consume. That such hard objects are not necessary for crushing leaves, may be inferred from the fact that certain species, which live in mud or water and feed on dead or living vegetable matter, but which do not swallow earth, are not provided with gizzards, {72} and therefore cannot have the power of utilising stones.

During the grinding process, the particles of earth must be rubbed against one another, and between the stones and the tough lining membrane of the gizzard. The softer particles will thus suffer some attrition, and will perhaps even be crushed. This conclusion is supported by the appearance of freshly ejected castings, for these often reminded me of the appearance of paint which has just been ground by a workman between two flat stones. Morren remarks that the intestinal canal is "impleta tenuissima terra, veluti in pulverem redacta." {73} Perrier also speaks of "l'etat de pate excessivement fine a laquelle est reduite la terre qu'ils rejettent," &c.

The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms Page 52

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin

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