Throwback Thursday – More earthworm sampling (December 2013)

Two years ago I was volunteering on yet another week of earthworm sampling on the NERC BESS project, this time in Leicestershire and Dorset. This week features farty mustard solution and an exciting day in an active quarry!



Another county, another field… Last Monday and Tuesday I was again away with the Natural History Museum Soil Biodiversity Group, this time heading up to Leicestershire, for more earthworm sampling. Not as scenic as Somerset, we were sampling in a research farm near Loddington, in addition to myself, Sholto was again volunteering, I also met for the first time Salma and we were joined by Irfaan on Tuesday.

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Another earthworm is sampled by Irfaan, with Salma and Sholto

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Salma is trained in the correct way to retract the tape measure

In the previous week there was a problem with the mustard solution, which had developed a pungent smell of hydrogen sulphide (egg-fart gas). This was a concern because the smell was so strong it could be killing the worms in their burrows before they could emerge. Could the change be because of a faulty batch of mustard powder, or change to the ingredients? This week different batch numbers of mustard powder were purchased to test this.

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David checks the bouquet of the mustard solution

Sniffing the mustard solution before pouring was now a necessary step, after the first mixing the smell was promising but by the morning some bottles had deteriorated. A new hypothesis was proposed that some sort of bacterial contamination was causing the smell and then it was realised the problem started after the mustard solution was made up using water from the soil laboratory back at the the Museum. The water in the labs comes from the museum’s own borehole and often has a slightly sulphurous smell, could some sulphur-reducing bacteria dwelling in the supply have caused the problem? It was decided to use fresh water bottles on the next trip.

Tuesday evening we travelled back to London and on Wednesday I spent the afternoon helping in the soil laboratory preparing the kit for Thursday and Friday and changing the alcohol in the earthworm samples. Earthworms have a high water content and this dilutes the alcohol, if the liquid is not replaced with fresh spirit the earthworms can start  to decompose which makes identification difficult (and stinky). Then Wednesday evening we left for Dorset – the final county being sampled in.

That’s a lot of earthworms!

Living in just the next county I have had many family holidays in Dorset and it was a pleasure to be back in beautiful Purbeck. Our site was near a quarry were limestone (Purbeck ‘marble’) is extracted and on Friday we got to view a blasting, which was very exciting.

Quarry manager Simon discusses the site with David

Quarry blasting (guess who made the excited squeal!)

The shallow soil did not yield many big anecic worms but large numbers of smaller species, since earthworms have a preference for areas of high pH. As might be expected there were also large numbers of snail shells which I tried my best not to be distracted by, although I think I may sneak a few specimens when we return next week!

Off for a well-earned meal after a hard day’s earthworm sampling


Analysis of the NERC BESS Earthworm project is still on going, and a paper is in progress. The Dorset site had particularly high earthworm numbers, with over 200 found in one pit! I will discuss that in another #throwbackthursday. I also plan to use the NERC BESS data to compare with my PhD data so taking time out to volunteer on the project is paying off well! 

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