A Palouse native, not seen in nearly two decades and feared extinct, has been rediscovered. While digging soil samples at the Washington State University botany department’s Smoot Hill preserve, University of Idaho graduate student Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon noticed a glimpse of white. Quick with her shovel, she captured the six-inch specimen of Driloreirus americanus, also known as the giant Palouse earthworm. Historically, specimens have been recorded as long as three feet. Although an observer reported it as “abundant” in the Palouse in 1897, tillage and competition from European earthworms seem to have taken their toll.
Smoot Hill contains the largest remnant of native Palouse prairie. Purchased by WSU in 1972, the 800-acre farm is also known as the Hudson Ecological Reserve, after biologist George Hudson, who negotiated the deal. More than 100 acres of the land are unplowed steppe. Another 100 acres are relatively undisturbed Ponderosa woodland. Research at the area has examined weed invasion, small mammal population biology, plant and insect relationships, and, of course, earthworm populations.