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Why Do Worms Surface After Rain?

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Reader Bruce wrote in to ask, “When there is a heavy rain, worms climb out on the pavement, only to die when the rain stops. Why do worms commit suicide?”

Worms coming topside during and after rain used to be explained as them simply trying not to drown in water-logged soil. As biologists learned more about annelids (the group that includes earthworms, ragworms, and leeches), though, we figured out that some of them breathe a little differently than most land animals, and don’t drown as easily as you or I would in a watery hole in the ground.

Earthworms breathe by passing oxygen and carbon dioxide through their skin. For the oxygen to get through the skin and into the worms’ bloodstream properly, there needs to be some moisture on the skin, so the worms produce mucus to keep them moist and slimy. Moisture in the ground keeps the mucus from drying out, so soil that’s a little wet actually helps the worms breathe easy. Even if the soil is very saturated or an earthworm is submerged in water, it can survive as long as there’s sufficient oxygen to pull in through the skin.

Drowning in a rain shower, then, isn’t really a big concern—most of the time. Different species consume oxygen at different rates, sometimes at different times during the day, so some are more at risk for running out of oxygen in wet soil than others. In 2008, zoologists in Taiwan looked at two worm species, one that surfaces when it rains and one that doesn’t. They found that the surfacing worm consumed oxygen at a faster rate—especially at night—and didn’t tolerate total water submersion all that well. They could stay underground for a little while when it rained during the day, but had to come up sooner if it rained at night. The other worm consumed oxygen at a lower rate and could survive underground with lower oxygen concentrations.

So, drowning in wet soil is a concern for some earthworms, but not all of them. But is there something else that drives them aboveground?

Some biologists think that worms come up to reproduce and/or make long trips, both of which are easier to do aboveground than in the confines of the soil. Since they need to stay moist to breathe, they hold off on these activities until the surface is nice and wet with rain and there’s a lower risk of drying out.

The mating 'n movement hypothesis is supported by the type of worms you see during and after rain. As Phil Nixon from the University of Illinois explains:

 “If the other factors were the driving influences, large numbers of juvenile worms should also be present, but the vast majority appears to be adult red worms with occasional adult nightcrawlers. When worms are brought to the surface with electricity, worm-grunting, or chemicals, many more worms are present. It is obvious that only a small percentage of the adult red worms are emerging during heavy rains. Perhaps this represents the small percentage of the population with the colonial spirit.* It appears somewhat similar to the small percentage of the world's people with a colonial spirit that immigrated to this continent and became our ancestors.”

Now, coming to the surface can be risky. There’s hungry birds, careless humans, and the possibility that a worm will get marooned on a sidewalk and dry out. If they’re coming up to mate, though, the risk involved may be overcome by the drive to reproduce. Surfacing isn’t necessarily suicidal, either. The worms don’t die, like Bruce thought, as soon as the rain stops, and many do make it back underground before they’re in danger. If death was guaranteed, we’d have no surfacing worms left to wonder about.

*Or maybe the ones that are able and ready to reproduce.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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