Jodi Johnson-Maynard has been playing with dirt for a long time.
She remembers playing in a dirt pile in her backyard while growing up in California.
“At one point my mom realized she had no spoons left in the house because I was constantly taking her spoons and any digging implements I could find,” she said. “I would dig these giant holes, look at the soil, add water to see what would happen. Early on, I guess I was fascinated by soil.”
Nowadays, Johnson-Maynard is a professor of soil and water management at the University of Idaho. Her work includes research on the Giant Palouse Earthworm, an oversized species that was once thought to be extinct, but was found in 2010.
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Her doctoral student is slated to finish his dissertation on the worm this fall, reported the Capital Press.
Johnson-Maynard has been documenting earthworm populations across the Columbia Plateau, identifying species, their locations and ecological habits. One of her students is studying the impacts of earthworms on nitrogen cycling.
No models currently describe the impact of macroorganisms such as earthworms on soil nutrients, Johnson-Maynard said.
“(The earthworm is) so simple in its biology, but yet it drives so many important processes — it’s what we call an ecosystem engineer,” she said. “They’re incredible creatures, and we still don’t know a lot about how they interact with the microbial community and plants.”
Farmers are interested in possibly adding more worms to their land to increase the amount of nitrogen available to their crops and manage their land for long-term soil health, she said. She hopes to be able to determine the effects of worm activity.
“I can tell farmers, ‘You should manage for earthworms because they’re beneficial,’ ” she said. But her challenge is to quantify the impact worms have on the soil.
Johnson-Maynard became interested in worm behavior as a doctoral student, when she observed that earthworms tended to invade beneath a particular species of scrub oak and ignored the ground under a nearby stand of pine trees.
She found that the soil types were different even though they were near one another. It became obvious to Johnson-Maynard that worms were the source of the soil differences and driving soil formation.
Retired Genesee, Idaho, farmer Russ Zenner’s farm has served as one of the locations for Johnson-Maynard’s work.
Interest in soil health has increased in recent years, Zenner said.
“I don’t know of many other researchers in the Pacific Northwest that have the knowledge base on earthworms that she has,” Zenner said. “If she can get the research funds, she’s very well positioned to help us learn more about that influence on soil health.”
“It’s really fascinating research,” Johnson-Maynard said. “And it’s great because people are interested in it.”