Flooding events often eradicate all of the individuals of the earthworm species Lumbricus rubellus living in river floodplains, although earthworm cocoons usually survive immersion, permitting populations to recover after the flood waters recede. Yet, if the area is flooded again before earthworms hatching from cocoons or migrating from adjacent areas reach reproductive maturity, it is unlikely that their populations will recover. The objective of this study is to determine the importance of the length of the dry period for population recovery in L. rubellus. Earthworms were collected at three floodplain sites along the Rhine River that were frequently, moderately or seldom flooded. Reproductively mature L. rubellus from the frequent flooded site were half the weight and probably younger than those from the other sites. A mechanistic population model was used to estimate the time for earthworm development from hatching to reproductive maturity, and to calculate the probability of population recovery after flooding. The model results show that the probability of extinction increases when the dry period is not long enough for individuals to reach reproductive maturity. When this condition is met population extinction is virtually absent resulting from the high lifetime reproductive output of L. rubellus. Parameterization of the model with site-specific data indicate that population survival on the site with the shortest dry period drastically decreases if worms mature at the weight measured at the other sites. The results therefore strongly suggest that the dry period is critical for population recovery in river floodplains and that earthworm populations have adapted to local (site-specific) conditions. © 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.