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Scientists urge public to report sightings of hammerhead flatworms in Jamaica

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Scientists urge public to report sightings of hammerhead flatworms in Jamaica

Monday, November 30, 2020

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Young scientists at The University of the West Indies’s Department of Life Sciences are appealing to the public to report sightings of hammerhead flatworms as they continue research on the invasive species and other worms across Jamaica.

Making the appeal on behalf of the researchers, Terrestrial Biologist Damion Whyte told the Jamaica Observer on the weekend that the information will inform them of the number of species, where they are found in Jamaica, and what they are eating.

“We need the help of the public to take pictures and share the information on where they are found,” Whyte said, adding that there has been an increase in reports of these worms in the rainy season.

“Several people on social media have reported encountering these worms on their walls, in flower gardens, on water drums, in drains and along trails. It should be noted that these worms are usually active at nights when the place is cool and when their prey are also active,” Whyte said.

In May 2018, LiveScience reported that giant hammerhead flatworms have been infiltrating French ecosystems and preying on small, soil-dwelling creatures for nearly two decades.

More recently, reports have emerged from the United States of the “snake-like hammerhead worm” seen in Virginia and Georgia.

Last week, CNN reported that over 100 sightings in the Atlanta area were announced on social networking service iNaturalist.

There are also reports of the worms in Bermuda and French Caribbean territories.

The hammerhead flatworm is from the genus Bipalium. The members of this group have a distinct brown head that looks like a hammer or shovel. The flatworm species vary in size, from as little as one centimetre up to 31 centimetres. They can reproduce asexually or sexually, and all species are hermaphrodite.

The flatworms are carnivorous. Some species prey mainly on earthworms, while others feed on molluscs (land snails) and other small invertebrates found in the soil.

“Please remember that earthworms are important for maintaining good soil health for growing plants,” Whyte said, adding that while the hammerhead flatworms don’t pose a direct threat to humans, they are an invasive species that can eradicate earthworms.

“There is no cause for alarm because we have been living with these worms for several years. Plus, it is not regarded as dangerous as it does not normally attack humans. However, it is believed to use a neurotoxin to immobilise its prey,” Whyte pointed out, adding that the toxin is said to be similar to the toxins produced by the pufferfish.

However, he admitted: “We do not know if it produces enough toxin to cause an allergic response.”

He said that Jamaica has over 570 species of land snails of which more than 500 are described as endemic. The mollusc-eating hammerhead worms (Bipalium vagum), he said, have been confirmed in Jamaica. “However, we are not sure how many other species are here and if they are having an impact on our land snails.”

Asked how the worms, which are endemic to Asia, got to Jamaica, Whyte pointed to a 2018 article by Justine et al, who carried out work in France and the French territories in the Caribbean, which suggested that the hammerhead flatworms, like other invasive species, were introduced here as a result of the transportation of plants and other products.

“We are not sure when and by what means they arrived in Jamaica, but we know that they have been here for several years,” Whyte said.

He encouraged Jamaicans who encounter the hammerhead flatworms to share the information with him via e-mail dl_whyte@yahoo.com, or Twitter @Roosters_world, or on Instagram @Roosters_world1.

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