How Do Worms Breathe?

  • Worms possess large, toothless mouths, but their mouths are only used for eating decaying plant and animal matter. Worms cannot breathe through their mouths; they also do not have noses or lungs. But worms still need to breathe, and just like humans and other animals, they take in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.

  • If you have ever handled a live earthworm, you will notice that it is usually slimy and wet. People who compost food waste using red worms (a process known as vermicomposting) know that their compost bin, pile or worm box must be kept as wet as a wrung-out sponge if they want their red worms to survive. This is because earthworms, red worms and other worms breathe through their skin, and to be able to successfully do this they must be moist.

  • About one-third of the way down from the head of earthworms is an organ called the clitellum, which appears as a thick band or segment around the worm's body. The clitellum produces mucus to help keep the body moist, which allows worms to breathe.
    This mucus also helps them move through the soil, since it lubricates their passage and then hardens as it dries. This prevents their burrows from crumbling. The clitellum and the mucus it produces also plays an important role in mating.
    Worms also produce fluid from dorsal pores, located along the middle of their back, between their segments.

  • This moisture on the surface of the worm's skin allows oxygen from the atmosphere to pass through the worm's thin skin and enter the blood in its circulatory system. Earthworms have five hearts, and these work to pump the oxygenated blood up to the brain and throughout the body. During this process, carbon dioxide is dissolved and excreted back through the worm's skin.

  • Worms are very sensitive to moisture levels and will die very quickly if they are left to dry out. This is why worms usually only come above ground at night, when evaporation occurs at a much slower rate, or when it rains.
    Contrary to popular belief, worms are not in danger of drowning in their burrows during a rainstorm. In fact, worms can survive long periods of time under water, especially if the water has a high oxygen content.

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