Community scientists are calling for people all over the Midlands to help them hunt for an alien invader which is preying on the UK’s native population of earthworms.
The New Zealand Flatworm is exactly that – a flat worm which originates from New Zealand and was accidentally introduced to the UK in plant imports in the 1960s. The worm preys on the native earthworms which keep our soil healthy and has been found all over Scotland and the North and, since the 1990s, has been spreading south.
Now scientists at the University of Nottingham are inviting gardeners and nature lovers across the Midlands counties and East Anglia to be their eyes on the ground as part of the national Open Air Laboratories Programme (OPAL). They are trying to find out how far the flatworm has reached across the UK and to catch them before they seriously affect our native earthworm population.
The two-year national survey started in 2015 but needs more people in Midlands counties, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire to take part to build a fuller national picture of the flatworm’s spread.
New Zealand Flatworms attack by wrapping themselves around the earthworm and secreting digestive mucus to dissolve them before consuming them. The flatworms are extremely hardy and can survive for over a year by shrinking in size to as little as 10% of their body mass until they find another earthworm to eat.
East Midlands OPAL scientist Dr Sarah Pierce from the University’s School of Life Sciences said: “This alien invader is very distinctive – it is ribbon-flat, slimy, and pointed at both ends. It grows up to 15cm long and 1cm wide, but sometimes is stretched out longer and thinner. It is purplish-brown on top with buff-coloured edge and a pale buff underside. The flatworm’s egg capsules look a bit like a small blackcurrant.
“We are asking people to go on a bit of a hunt in their gardens and in the countryside and fill in a short online survey, importantly even if no flatworm is found. These worms have been spread by accidently moving them with plants, pots, and compost bags, and even hay bales and tents. You are most likely to find them in dark, damp places so we want people to look under plant pots, logs, garden ornaments, and anywhere else they could be hiding in your garden. The flatworms curl up like a Swiss roll and leave slime circles where they have been resting. If you find one, don’t touch it with your bare hands as the slime can irritate your skin. You can kill it by crushing it or covering it with salt.”
Dr Pierce added: “It is very important that we build up as accurate a picture as possible in the Midlands region as our earthworms may be under attack. Every record we receive will help us to understand the distribution and impact of these flatworms, so we can develop the best response.”
All the details on the OPAL New Zealand Flatworm survey and a link to take part are available here.
A video featuring Dr Pierce and the New Zealand flatworm is available here.
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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK for research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for four years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.
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