Viral clip shows tree catkins, not ‘rain of worms’ in China – scientists

BEIJING (Reuters): A viral clip online likely shows the catkins, or flower spikes, of poplar trees covering cars in northern China, not a “rain of worms” as social media posts and some news reports have claimed, experts told Reuters.

One tweet saying: “China citizens told to find shelter after it looked like it started to rain worms” has been viewed more than 18 million times at the time of writing.

Another user sharing the claim on Facebook said: “China wakes up to ‘rain of worms’ that splattered on locals cars, who have now been asked to now carry umbrellas”.

However, several experts who viewed the video told Reuters that it showed the spike-shaped inflorescences of poplar trees known as catkins, which are abundant in the northern Chinese region where the video was shot, while a rain of worms or insects was unlikely because it is too cold there for such organisms at this time of year.

Poplar trees are part of the willow family and native to the northern hemisphere.

There can be thousands of poplar catkins per tree, Claire Thomas Federici, a botanist and plant geneticist at the University of California, Riverside, said by email.

Catkins “resemble caterpillars, and that is how they are often described, or as squiggly, worm-like structures,” she said. “Thus, you can see how the untrained eye would refer to these as worms.”

Experts said that without a sample to examine, it was difficult to confirm the identity of the supposed worms.

Still, the stringy debris in the pictures is likely not worms, “but rather catkins from some species” of tree in China, Lewis J. Feldman, professor of plant biology at the University California, Berkeley, said by email.

Julia Bailey-Serres, a geneticist at the University of California, Riverside, also told Reuters by email that “there is a high likelihood that these are catkins from willows.”

Based on the one-character provincial abbreviation and letter on the license plates of cars in the video, the scene appears to have been shot in Liaoning province in northern China.

China has a “distinctively rich” variety of trees in the poplar family, particularly in northern China, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Guo-Hua Huang, an entomologist at the Hunan Provincial Key Laboratory for Biology and Control of Plant Diseases and Insect Pests, told Reuters in an email that there are “too many poplar trees” in Liaoning province, and that he believed the video showed catkins of poplar trees.

Moreover, Huang said, few live organisms can be found in northern China at present due to the low temperatures at this time, and it is usually “not possible for worms or any other live organism to fall from the sky as rain.”


Misleading. Experts say the video from China likely shows catkins from poplar trees instead of a “rain” of worms or caterpillars.