Wanted, dead or alive: flatworms

Earthworms are under threat from an imported cousin.

Flatworms could be a really serious pest and without doubt Britain's gardeners are to blame." Manchester University's Hugh Jones is blunt as he describes the arrival and spread of the latest menace to threaten our flora.

He is referring to the alien worm which is destroying our native earthworm population. The dark-brown invader was first discovered some 30 years ago in Belfast gardens and identified in London's Natural History Museum as Artioposthia triangulata, a native of New Zealand's South Island beech forests. This small, ribbon-like creature almost certainly travelled half way around the globe as a stowaway in the soil of pot plants.

When motionless the flatworm is just 2-3in long, but this changes to 6-8in as it moves along - and it is capable of squeezing through the thinnest gap (one report details an escape through the knot of a tied up polythene bag). It feeds by enveloping a hapless earthworm with its body and secreting copious amounts of slime laden with digestive enzymes. This reduces the unfortunate victim to a soup which the predator then drinks through a mouth in its underside.

This has worrying implications for farmers and gardeners alike. Earthworms are an essential part of fertility in many areas, particularly in wet or thin soil unsuitable for ploughing. "Earthworms are vital to drainage - particularly the top 6-9in of soil," says Dr Jones. "Without them many naturally damp pastures would revert to marshland."

In addition, earthworms drag nutrients down from the surface and aerate the soil. Many plants use their tunnels as an easy way of extending their root systems. As a result, there is a clear correlation between worm numbers and plant growth.

Flatworms upset this delicate balance as they literally drink their way through our native species. Researchers in Northern Ireland have discovered that under ideal conditions, a flatworm eats 14 worms a week but if the supply dries up, rather than starving or moving to pastures new, it will simply stop eating. Apparently flatworms can survive for a year without food by reducing their reproduction and slowly absorbing their own tissue.

One of the major problems tackling the menace is that very little is known about the flatworm - both here and in its native environment. Hugh Jones, for example says the new species are being discovered almost weekly in its native habitat and as a result he is uncertain of the identity of a second British invader. "We think it is Caenoplana alba, but we are waiting until Australian taxonomists finish detailing their native species before we can be sure," he says. For the time being, he and his fellow researchers refer to it as the "pink un".

Unlike its New Zealand cousin, the second species has spread north from an origin in southern Britain. Fortunately, being rather smaller, it appears less harmful to biggest native worms. But it is a worry nevertheless.

Derek Cosens, a senior lecturer at Edinburgh University, says this is typical of virtually every aspect of our knowledge. Although one of Britain's leading flatworm experts, he admits that his research is based mainly on project work done by his final year undergraduates. Dr Cosens believes the worms depend on cold, wet and damp conditions and are thus likely remain confined to the west and north of Britain.

The flatworm seems to have almost no predators but some preliminary research in Edinburgh now suggests a so-far unidentified beetle may eat the invader. "What we really need is funding for a post-gradutate to do a thesis," says Dr Cosens. "That would revolutionise our understanding."

In the meantime, what do you do if you find your garden has been invaded by flatworms? Dr Jones at Manchester University says that to kill a flatworm you sprinkle salt on it or drop in jam jar of water or vinegar. And if you want to help find a remedy to flatworms you could start by sending him your samples. Put them in a small sealed pot with a bit of damp tissue and address your package to Dr Hugh Jones, 3239 Stopford Buildings, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PT.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultan...

    Recruitment Genius: Plumber

    £22000 - £25900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is expanding and th...

    Recruitment Genius: Corporate Account Manager

    £27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Corporate Account Manager is ...

    Recruitment Genius: Chef de Partie

    £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This award winning conference venues provider...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders