The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark
June 4, 2013
Making heads or tails out of severed earthworms
The red wiggler, or compost worm, might regenerate a new head or a new tail, depending on where it suffers amputation.
Loss of any of the first 8 segments might result in a complete regeneration of the head.
The worm might grow a new head if cut behind the 13th segment, but it can't replace sexual organs.
A separation between segments 20 and 21 might yield a new tail for the head and a new head for the tail — a possible two worms.
The first 23 segments are roughly the limit for partial head regeneration by the cut-off tail. A loss of more than that might result in tail segments at both ends — and a dead end for the worm.
A cut-off head might regenerate a partial tail if separation occurs in front of the 55th segment. Behind the 55th, full tail regeneration is possible.
ANATOMY OF THE FRONT 20 SEGMENTS
Source: The Biological Bulletin
Every gardener has had the gruesome experience of plunging a spade into the ground, only to find that he has sliced an earthworm in half.
Will it die? Regenerate the lost part? Become two earthworms?
The answer depends on a variety of factors, including the type of earthworm and the location and tidiness of the amputation.
Scientists studying earthworms get mixed results even when using anesthesia and a scalpel, so sloppy surgery from a rusty trowel won't do much for a worm's chances for regeneration. However, worms can rebound from sacrificing some of their hundred-plus segments to a hoe or to a hungry robin or mole.
Regeneration of heads and tails commonly occurs when an injury activates stem cells that differentiate into replacement parts. Another transformation occurs when tissue suddenly finds itself closer to the front or back of a regenerating worm. Through a process of cellular reorganization, the tissue conforms to its new role in the worm.
The rules of regeneration
• Most earthworms can lose several segments from their head and grow them back. With the red wiggler, a worm often used in composting, the more head segments lost, the less likely they will be fully regenerated. The marsh-loving blackworm, however, always generates eight replacement head segments no matter where the worm has been bisected.
• The ability to generate a new tail is almost universal among segmented worms.
• An amputation between head and tail can sometimes result in two worms, with the front section growing a new tail and the severed tail growing a new head.
• Sometimes a severed tail generates new tail segments instead of a head. Like the rest of the worm, the twin-tailed creature absorbs oxygen from the soil and can stay alive for a while, but it's unable to feed itself and will eventually perish.
• Severed red wiggler tails especially "have trouble mounting productive head regeneration and thus die of starvation and brainlessness, if you will," says Mark Zoran, who studies nervous system regeneration at Texas A&M.
• A severed head made up of fewer than 20 segments can heal, but the animal tends to develop a dysfunctional lower digestive tract. Would it die of constipation? "I guess it is possible," Zoran says, "but I doubt that little head fragment would be doing much eating while in such a state of disrepair."
Temperature shifts can cause blackworms to develop a fissure between the head and tail, roughly at the 48th of its 150 segments. Each fragment develops a new head or tail, with each part forming a full set of gonads.
A not-too-distant relative of earthworms is the white worm, a tiny translucent worm that some people grow to feed to their aquarium fish.
One species of white worm relies exclusively on fragmentation to reproduce. It spontaneously fragments into five to 10 pieces, each of which grows a new head and tail. Sometimes, a fragment will grow heads at both ends, resulting in what scientists call a bipolar worm.