Aah, the Amazon. If there's one place we'd expect to find gigantic wildlife, it's beneath the lush canopies of its rainforests. 

While cruising through the jungles of Ecuador, entomologist and science communicator Phil Torres stumbled upon a slimy surprise in the foothills of the Sumaco Volcano: a giant earthworm, likely in the genus Martiodrilus, crossed the road in front of the vehicle he was travelling in.

"We were out looking for these weird amphibians called caecilians, which actually look a heck of a lot like these giant earthworms," he explains. "They live in a similar micro-habitat – in the earth. And both come out during rainstorms. Then we realised it was a worm!"

Sometimes described as "boa constrictors in earthworm suits", these animals have been known to reach 1.5 metres (about 5ft) in length. The Latin name of one species – Martiodrilus crassus – actually translates to "worm that feeds on dogs". Of course, like other earthworms, these giants spend their lives sucking down microbes and decaying plant or animal matter in the soil. 

"Those bristles (called setae) on the underside were really quite thick and grippy," says Torres. "Like teeny little legs helping them move along as they dig. What really surprised me was the size difference once you touch it! It expanded and contracted to about 30% of its size."

And touching the large worm revealed something else: slime. Just as its smaller cousins might do, the giant earthworm excreted a type of goo when handled.

"It had a surprisingly similar feel to the earthworms I dig up in my yard," recalls Torres. "It felt like a long, slimy, ridged muscle. It seems like it is 90% muscle, 9% dirt, 1% nervous system. If I were starving out there, I might be tempted to cook it..."

As for that stunning blue shimmer, many species of giant earthworms have iridescent skin, but its exact function remains something of a mystery. "You see a lot of shiny things out there [in the jungle]," says Torres. "This one was particularly deep blue/purple."

Impressive as this specimen may be, South America doesn't hold the worm world's current heavyweight record. That title belongs to (who else?) Australia. The giant Gippsland earthworm (Megascolides australis) can reach three metres (9.8ft) when stretched end to end. 

The mammoth species is extremely vulnerable, isolated to just 150 square miles at the southeast tip of Australia. Its habitat, once dense forests, has been almost entirely converted to farmland – a threat all too familiar to Ecuadorian wildlife.

Despite its small area, Ecuador ranks among the top ten most biodiverse countries on Earth. This video is just one example of the incredible life that exists in the Amazon. 

"Every single day you see something new," says Torres. "Either you've never seen it before, or its possible no one has ever seen it before. This is quite possibly an undescribed, new species of worm as these worms are very understudied and there are a lot of new endemic species being found on and around the Sumaco volcano."

The team even encountered a baby Tayra (which you can see at the end of the video) in the area, an animal Torres describes as the "weasel of the Amazon." And cute as it is, it's important to remember that wild animals should only be handled by experienced professionals.


Top header image: Phil Torres/used with permission