JACKSONVILLE — If the name isn't enough to creep a person out — jumping worms — the damage the invasive species can do to soil is.
And now they've been confirmed in Illinois.
The highly invasive genus has an insatiable appetite, turning topsoil into essentially useless piles with the appearance of coffee grounds. The loose, granular-looking soil left in the worms' wake is stripped of nutrients and unable to hold moisture, meaning it not only quickly erodes but also is uninhabitable for plant life.
Ken Johnson of the University of Illinois Extension is the horticulture educator for Morgan, Calhoun, Cass, Greene and Scott counties.
He said Friday the worms — which also go by the equally unappealing names of crazy worms or snake worms — first were seen in Illinois in 2015 and quickly have spread across the state. As of this week, their presence has been confirmed in 38 Illinois counties and they are suspected of being in six others.
While there is debate about whether the worms can survive the cold winters of west-central Illinois, it is know that their eggs can thrive. That means they can be transferred by clinging to garden tools or plants that are moved from one spot to another.
That makes it important to thoroughly clean tools between use. Johnson also recommends not sharing or transferring soil, compost or mulch from garden to garden, and making sure compost and mulch that are bought have been properly heated — temperatures over 104 degrees Fahrenheit can kill the eggs.
"Unfortunately, there are currently no viable control measures for jumping worms," Johnson said. "Adult worms can be placed in a plastic bag then placed in the sun to kill them. However, this is unlikely to have a significant impact on jumping worm populations."
Because they can reproduce without mating, infestations can spread easily.
The worms can be up to 8 inches long and resemble nightcrawlers, but there are some notable differences: They have a dark glossy body and are darker on top than on the bottom. They also have a smooth, unraised milky white band — it's called a clitellum — that circles the body.
The most unique tell, as the name suggests, is that jumping worms jump, squirm, flip and thrash when disturbed. They often move in an S-shaped, snake-like manner.
To test for the worm's presence, Johnson suggests mixing one-third cup of dry mustard with 1 gallon of water and putting the mixture on soil. Within a few minutes, the blend will drive worms to the surface for identification.
Those who think they might have jumping worms can take one to the local Extension Service office for a check.