Somehow, a deadly flatworm has made its way to the United States. And although it doesn’t look like much, it could bring a wave of disaster with it. In fact, the creature is so dangerous that experts have issued a grave warning.
Yes, the discovery of flatworms in Florida has sent officials into a panic. At first glance, the creatures in question resemble the common slugs that you might find in your garden. However, unlike slugs, these creature could be deadly.
And upon closer inspection, the New Guinea flatworm – which grows to around two inches long – also has some notable differences to the humble slug. For one thing, the creatures have black backs and gray underbellies. You won’t find their mouths at one end of their bodies, either; instead, they’re on their stomachs.
“There’s nothing else around that looks like it,” Christopher McVoy – one of the first to spot the flatworm in Florida – told CBS 12. “I first saw one in my driveway… about a year ago in June, and I happened to do a little research and got in touch with a researcher in Paris at the Museum of Natural History, and he said, ‘Wow, haven’t seen any that far north.’”
Originally native to New Guinea, these fearsome flatworms are one of the world’s most invasive species. Indeed, they were actually brought to the U.S. by mistake: the authorities believe the creatures traveled to the country in potted plants.
As a result, the authorities are now worried that they will take over America’s soils. In fact, authorities are so concerned by this possibility that they’re doing everything in their power to prevent it. They’ve even set up a hotline which concerned citizens can call to report sightings.
“They’re a dark worm with a dorsal orange stripe down the center of their back,” agricultural agent Roy Beckford told WPTV. “[State officials] have a phone number that one can call to report this problem, and they’ll send an agent to actually deal with that. This is very serious.”
And worryingly, as soon as the line was launched it began getting calls. One day in 2016, for example, an agent revealed that six different people had contacted her with New Guinea flatworm sightings in South Florida. This simple fact, moreover, apparently terrified health and wildlife officials.
“The discovery of this species in mainland America should be considered very bad news for biodiversity,” Jean-Lou Justine, a biodiversity professor, told IFL Science. “It is a predator of land snails and of many other soil invertebrates. It can endanger existing populations of rare and threatened endemic snails.”
And not only is the species detrimental to native slug populations, but it also poses a potentially serious risk to human life. Indeed, the flatworms can carry a deadly toxic parasite known as rat lungworm. Experts, then, advise people to never touch the creatures.
After all, if people do come into contact with the flatworms, they may suffer irritation. “It can actually cause problems on your skin,” Roy Beckford told WPTV. “Because it actually vomits up this caustic substance that can cause problems.”
However, that’s not the only danger that the flatworms pose. You see, rats and mice often feast on these gruesome animals, and when they digest them, they leave contaminated droppings. The resulting rodent waste is extremely dangerous to humans.
In fact, simply inhaling the fumes from the contaminated rodent feces can lead humans to contract meningitis. This condition is an acute inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, and in some cases it can be deadly.
Unsurprisingly, then, Florida natives are extremely concerned about the arrival of the New Guinea flatworm on their shores. Since the first reports in 2012, people have reported sightings in Cape Coral and Miami, and there’s a worry that the creatures will soon spread to other states.
So to prevent the flatworms’ advance, it’s felt that efforts must be made to destroy the creatures. And as they are most often found in plant pots and flower beds, the best way to get rid of the critters is in fact by pouring boiling water on them.
However, wildlife officials have stressed that the New Guinea flatworms’ greatest threat is to the wider ecosystem. The flatworms have no natural predators, after all, and therefore have the potential to wipe out all of the plants and animals in their path.
Nevertheless, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission advises against calling 911 to report sightings. “Our agency does not advocate for people to call 911 to report this species,” a spokesperson told Snopes. “Any invasive species in Florida can be reported to the FWC’s Exotic Species Hotline. However, we are not necessarily soliciting for this particular species.”
Some experts have also disputed the extent of the flatworms’ threat to human health. According to Timothy Collins, a professor of biology at Florida International University, there are no confirmed cases of the New Guinea flatworm carrying rat lungworm in the state.
And to avoid illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise taking some simple hygiene measures. “Don’t eat raw or undercooked snails or slugs, frogs or shrimp/prawns,” read a statement from the agency.
“If you handle snails or slugs, wear gloves and wash your hands,” it continued. “Always remember to thoroughly wash fresh produce. [And] when traveling in areas where the parasite is common, avoid eating uncooked vegetables.” All of this perhaps puts the story into perspective. That said, while humans may be able to avoid the worst of it, the natural world might not be so lucky.