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"Something Well Beyond Lowly"

"Something Well Beyond Lowly"

Studying worms is the journey of a lifetime
The Colgate Scene magazine, January 2003

If your view of worms is "bait," it’s a pretty narrow perspective. Worms are a very diverse family of creatures – an estimated 15,000 species adapted for practically any environment – and without them, our planet would almost certainly be a very different place.

Worms have been around considerably longer than humans. They debuted more than half a billion years ago, during the Cambrian Explosion, the evolutionary equivalent of the Big Bang, when complex animals suddenly emerged in profusion. There’s a theory that armies of worms, consuming dense layers of decaying plant material on the floors of the oceans, released the carbon dioxide trapped in that debris, creating a greenhouse atmosphere that warmed the planet and set the stage for still more diverse life, including humans.

Colgate University Biology Professor Damhnait McHugh has been studying worms for nearly three decades. Her research has taken her from the muddy tidal flats of Ireland’s Kinsale Harbor to Iceland, South Carolina, Maine and South Africa. In the 1970s and '80s, she made several submersible dives into the inky deeps of the Pacific Ocean to study extraordinarily beautiful polychaete annelids (“bristle worms”) that make their homes around thermal vents along the Juan de Fuca Ridge.

Jim Smith’s profile of Dr. McHugh and her work, for Colgate Scene, painted a portrait of a dedicated scientist who believes there is much to learn, including humility, from these ancient animals. “We should remember,” she argues sagely, “that we are (custodians) not masters of this diversity.”

Click on the link at left to read "Something Well Beyond Lowly" on the The Colgate Scene magazine website.

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