Letter | Published:


Nature volume 29, pages 502503 | Download Citation



THE theory of the formation of vegetable mould through the action of earthworms, by Darwin, received little attention when published from people who had been accustomed to examine the soils of various countries. That the vegetable soil had been formed as he states seemed to have been accepted by his followers without hesitation. In your columns, however, of late, letters have appeared from Messrs. R. M. Christy and T. E. Wilcox, showing that earthworms do not exist in the prairies in the north-west of Canada or in the United States, in those of Kansas, the Indian Territory, or in Idaho and Washington Territory. This is simply what may be expected. Notwithstanding the keenness of observation of Darwin and his width of observation, there seem vast regions where earthworms have had little to do with the formation of the vegetable soil. In many parts of Australia, and also in the moister climate of New Zealand, the soil affords few indications that earthworms ever passed it through their bodies. In a section of soil I brought from the Mataura plain, South Island of New Zealand, nothing could be seen to indicate that worms had ever swallowed it. That vegetable soil forms a fit habitation for earthworms is undoubted. Darwin admits “that a layer, though a thin one, of fine earth, which probably long retains some moisture, is in all cases necessary for their existence.” Before this thin layer existed, how could they—the worms—form vegetable soil? This thin layer must have been formed in some other way; Darwin does not say how. It is not necessary to call in the aid of earthworms to do so. The very name which has been universally applied to the thin upper covering, the exterior film enveloping the surface of the deposits underneath, viz. vegetable soil, speaks to its origin in the decay of vegetation. Take for instance the boulder-clays of this part of the Lothians in Scotland, with their tough, stony texture, their pebbles as finely striated as when the ice squeezed them into the pasty mass of crushed shales out of which they appear to have been partly formed. While these surfaces could have afforded none of the conditions required by Darwin, or indeed supply any other save inorganic food, the slow growth on their surfaces of the more simple forms of vegetable life, and their decay, would in the lapse of ages supply the thin film which Darwin requires. It surely, then, is attempting too much to ascribe to the earthworm the formation of the vegetable soil. The earthworm is not the only occupant of the material which the growth and decay of vegetation supplies as a surface covering. The earthworm is not the only drainer. The roots of many plants not only descend deeply into the subsoils, but also fetch up from depths where worms could not reach supplies of material to mix with the superficial covering; and so do the various insects which have their habitat in the soil, burrowing as they go, and casting, like the mole, the stuff behind them or upwards as they descend.

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  1. Bonnington, Midlothian



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