MIAMI - It has a goo-spewing mouth on its belly, is covered in toxic slime, hosts a brain-eating parasite and, like any ambitious mutant monster, the New Guinea flatworm is invading the U.S. by way of sunny Miami.
There’s also this: The worm is hermaphroditic, so it can multiply anywhere, anytime.
Researchers last month confirmed for the first time that the flatworm has been found on the U.S. mainland in four locations around Miami-Dade County. Even in tiny Coral Gables. The worm clocks in at just 2 inches. But don’t be fooled by its sluggish demeanor. At mealtime, the worm goes full-on “Alien,” posing a threat to South Florida’s already fragile native snail population.
“It is really vile,” said David Robinson, the nation’s chief snail scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “As a biologist, I can handle most things, but I find this really revolting.”
Scientists worry the worm — listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as one of the planet’s 100 most invasive species — could spread by being transported in garden soil or on plants.
“From Miami, the flatworm can go anywhere in Florida and anywhere in the U.S.,” said Jean-Lou Justine, lead author of a June 23 PeerJ study and a researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.
While humans face little risk from the worm, it thrives on snails and will eat any slug, worm or soft critter living in soil. And its appetite is voracious. Robinson has seen pictures of a Giant African Land Snail — another invasive marauder — being attacked by a pack of 30 to 40 flatworms.
The worm latches onto the shell’s opening, then spits its stomach out through the mouth on its belly. An acidic goo from the stomach dissolves the snail’s flesh so the worm can re-swallow both stomach and prey. The worm, native to New Guinea, has been documented in 22 countries, mostly island nations, making its arrival on the U.S. mainland more alarming, said Justine.
“In the beginning, we are going to find them mainly in gardens because they will be transported from garden to garden,” he said. “The real problem will be if they go into the wild.”
The New Guinea flatworm carries the rat lung parasite, which burrows into the brain and can spread to humans. They are also coated in a toxic slime, so shouldn’t be handled.