Giant Earthworms of the Karoo – with Dr Danuta Plisko

Posted by Tracey Roelofsen, March 15, 2016



Amazing things happen in the Karoo when it rains. The dry, burnt veld turns a chartreuse shade of green and the thirsty land breathes a sigh of relief. And then…the worms come out to play. These worms come to the surface for two reason; they run out of oxygen in saturated soil and they come up to reproduce.
150 Years ago the first specimen was recorded somewhere in the Cape (no accurate records can be found). Dr Danuta Plisko, 88 years young, has dedicated her life to studying these earthworms. She is one of a handful of world renown professionals studying in this field and a more passionate and dedicated woman you would be hard pressed to find. I asked her when and if she planned to retire and her response was “I have retired three times…at 60 they tried to get me out and again at 70. At 80 I wrote my best paper”. To meet this woman was incredible. At the KwaZulu-Natal Musuem she has made a staggering contribution of 6000 jars of specimens she has collected.
I made contact with her on Tuesday 8 March when we managed to collect 4 specimens and she drove through the night from KZN to arrive on our farm at 02h00 9 March. Interestingly these earthworms leave no visible casts on the surface…perhaps a new species Dr Plisko pondered. We eagerly await her paper towards the end of the year to find out!

South Africa has a particularly unique earthworm fauna which is yet to be fully documented. The identification of these specimens requires a particular skill set that is scarce in our country and there is an urgent need for training and funding for work on earthworm taxonomy. A better understanding will help us improve the way we use natural resources and provide insight into this important field.

It is essential that earthworms are properly prepared upon collection otherwise they are useless for taxonomic purposes.
We hope the small part that we have played in this research will shed some more light on this fascinating subject and make the public more aware of this unique species.