Identifying British earthworms currently requires collecting and killing specimens, to then use microscopic morphological features for identification. This is the biggest barrier to earthworm recording and limits the number of people who are willing and able to contribute earthworm species occurrence data to the National Earthworm Recording Scheme.
So, what if there was a way to identify earthworms live? So far, no live earthworm ID guide has proven accurate enough to meet the high standards of the National Earthworm Recording Scheme. This isn't necessarily because some earthworm species couldn't be identified live, but more likely because we simply don't have enough data on the natural variation in live ID characters within and between species to produce a reliable guide.
The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Biological Recording Company and Earthworm Society of Britain have teamed up on the Earthworm Image Recognition Project to see if image recognition technology can be used to identify earthworms from live photos. The project is funded by Defra and aims to produce a beta version of an app for farmers that will enable auto-identification of earthworms from photos.
In order to train the AI within the app, the Biological Recording Company will be gathering live photos of earthworms and then identifying each specimen using the established morphological features using a microscope and the Key to the Earthworms of the UK & Ireland (2nd edition) by Emma Sherlock. The ability of the AI to reliably identify all species of British earthworm is currently unknown, but by the end of the project, we will have an idea regarding which species can and can't be identified by image recognition technology. All of the photos will be taken using smartphones so that the AI is trained using the same quality of images that users of the app would be able to submit. With over 100 photos needed per species to train the AI, the Biological Recording Company has a number of earthworm recording activities coming up.
Earthworm Sampling Days
A programme of Earthworm Sampling Days will be hosted at a number of wildlife sites across England and Wales. During these events, participants will sample for earthworms and use their personal smartphone devices to take photos of the specimens using a specific protocol. Following photography of the earthworms, the specimens will be collected, killed and preserved so that they can be accurately identified by the National Recorder for Earthworms. All photos will be submitted following the event using an online submission form.
No experience is necessary as all participants will be trained on both earthworm sampling and the smartphone photography protocol. Furthermore, no photography skills are required - it's important that the images used to train the AI come from a range of devices and are taken by individuals ranging in smartphone photography skill level so that the training data represents the actual data that farmers would be submitting when the app is tested.
All of these events are free to attend, but booking is required.
- 26 Sep 23 Earthworm Sampling Day at Paradise Fields (Ealing, London)
- 10 Oct 23 Earthworm Sampling Day at Nant Hill (Wrexham County Borough)
- 16 Oct 23 Earthworm Sampling Day at Woodhouse Farm (Marrick, N. Yorkshire)
- 21 Oct 23 Earthworm Sampling Day at Rothwell Country Park (W. Yorkshire)
- 23 Oct 23 Earthworm Sampling Day at Erewash Meadows Nature Reserve (Derbyshire)
- 24 Oct 23 Earthworm Sampling Day at Holme Pierrepoint Country Park (Nottinghamshire)
- 25 Oct 23 Earthworm Sampling Day at Woodside Nature Reserve (Derbyshire)
- 30 Oct 23 Earthworm Sampling Day at Pevensey Road Nature Reserve (Hounslow, London)
- 12 Dec 23 Earthworm Sampling Day at Kensington Gardens (Kensington, London) - Book here
We’d like to say a huge thank you to all the organisations that are helping us to deliver this programme of events, including Citizen Zoo, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, London Natural History Society, the Tees-Swale Naturally Connected Project and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
Citizen Science Projects
Over the next few months, the Biological Recording Company will be launching a citizen science project that will ask the general public to send off live specimens from their gardens. This will help ensure the project can incorporate data from a wide range of species and geographic regions into the image recognition training library. For example, composting species (such as Dendrobaena venetea, Eisenia andrei and Eisenia fetida) are less likely to be found on Earthworm Sampling Days so asking the public to send specimens off from their compost bins can help to fill this gap in data.
More information about these citizen science projects will be released In late December 2023.
Existing Image Data
Finally, earthworm researchers will be contacted to enquire if they have existing live images of specimens that were later identified accurately to species. For example, the Darwin Tree of Life project has been photographing specimens before preserving them and may have some images that can be used for the image recognition training library.