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article imageInvasive hammerhead flatworms hitchhike rides on tropical plants

By Karen Graham     Nov 15, 2020 in Science
Virginia Wildlife Management and Control’s cellphone is a 24/7 venomous snake hotline. A couple of weeks ago, an image of a snake-like creature about 12 inches long found in Chesterfield County caused quite a stir.
If that wasn't enough to give someone nightmares, a few days ago, in Blackshear, Georgia, Ryan King came across another of the creatures. He shared an image of the creature with Action News Jax, and strangely enough, they had covered the Virginia story earlier.
“I wish I could say this is a joke but I literally read an article the day before about Virginia residents finding a ‘snake’ that was actually an invasive species in the hammerhead flatworm. Crazy coincidence,” King told Action News Jax on Twitter.
Actually, Digital Journal did a story on the hammerhead flatworm in 2015, after several were found in Florida. The invasive species is a Bipalium, a predatory terrestrial flatworm with a half-moon shaped head, They are divided into three genera, according to the shape of the head:
1. Bipalium: with a well-developed head plate, much broader than long, and with elongated lateral auricles
2. Perocephalus: rudimentary head plate, not much broader than the body
3. Placocephalus: flat head plate with a circular outline
The hammerhead flatworm found in Florida, Platydemus manokwari, is native to New Guinea and other areas of the Pacific region of the world, but it has accidentally been introduced into the soil of 15 countries, including being found in a hothouse in France in 2014. The predatory worm is so persistent in chasing down its prey, it will even climb up trees to reach snails.
The New Guinea flatworm is only 40-65 millimeters (1.4 to 3.5 inches) in length, However, some species can grow pretty big - reaching two feet in length, which may be why the Virginia resident who first reported the hammerhead sighting thought it was a snake.
Photo released by the Natural Museum of Natural History (France) on March 4  2014 shows part of an i...
Photo released by the Natural Museum of Natural History (France) on March 4, 2014 shows part of an invasive New Guinea flatworm "Platydemus manokwari" (C, white) as it eats a snail
Pierre Gros, Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle/AFP/File
Ecological damage caused by Bipalium
Bipaliums were brought to the U.S. with horticultural plants and has been regularly found in greenhouses since 1901. They were reported as being so plentiful in New Orleans in 1963, that they were used as demonstration material in zoology classes.
Because they are native to tropical regions of the world, they prefer a warm, humid environment, at one time found only in greenhouses and the lower tier of U.S. states. With climate change, they are now being found much further north.
Because the flatworm has no known predators in the U.S., they are voracious eaters, killing off native earthworms, snails, and other arthropods they come across. This habit is devastating to the natural environment here in the U.S. and other countries where they have become entrenched.
Bipalium nobile is a land planarian of the subfamily Bipaliinae found in Japan  and can reach up to ...
Bipalium nobile is a land planarian of the subfamily Bipaliinae found in Japan, and can reach up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) in length.
M.Nishimura
Reproduction in Bipalium may be asexual or sexual and all species are hermaphroditic. This means that chopping a worm in half will not necessarily kill it. As for natural hermaphroditic reproduction, it is primarily achieved through fragmentation: a small rear portion of the worm will pinch off, and "stay-behind" as the worm moves forward. Within about 10 days, the head begins to form.
And if a description of the flatworms is not enough, several of the species have been found to secrete tetrodotoxin, a very potent neurotoxin, ao when handling live flatworms please use gloves and hands should be washed in hot soapy water, and rinsed in alcohol or a standard hand disinfectant.
More about hammerhead flatworm, Invasive species, Bipalium, snakelike, neurotoxin
 
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