Background: For generations many families in and around Florida's Apalachicola National Forest have supported themselves by collecting the large endemic earthworms (Diplocardia mississippiensis). This is accomplished by vibrating a wooden stake driven into the soil, a practice called "worm grunting". In response to the vibrations, worms emerge to the surface where thousands can be gathered in a few hours. Why do these earthworms suddenly exit their burrows in response to vibrations, exposing themselves to predation?
Principal findings: Here it is shown that a population of eastern American moles (Scalopus aquaticus) inhabits the area where worms are collected and that earthworms have a pronounced escape response from moles consisting of rapidly exiting their burrows to flee across the soil surface. Recordings of vibrations generated by bait collectors and moles suggest that "worm grunters" unknowingly mimic digging moles. An alternative possibility, that worms interpret vibrations as rain and surface to avoid drowning is not supported.
Conclusions: Previous investigations have revealed that both wood turtles and herring gulls vibrate the ground to elicit earthworm escapes, indicating that a range of predators may exploit the predator-prey relationship between earthworms and moles. In addition to revealing a novel escape response that may be widespread among soil fauna, the results show that humans have played the role of "rare predators" in exploiting the consequences of a sensory arms race.