Friday, March 1

‘Everybody has them’: Invasive, toxic New Guinea flatworms now found in most Florida counties

Unless you know what you’re looking for, there’s a good chance your backyard is loaded with invasive flatworms without you knowing it.

The small, toxic worm is a New Guinea flatworm, and in the last decade, it has spread quickly without much of anything to slow down its takeover.

It is considered one of the worst invasive species not just in Florida but in the world.

It doesn’t matter where you live in South Florida, invasive species experts said everybody has them.

Jeannin Tilford, the owner of Toad Busters, is willing to bet she will find New Guinea flatworms slithering through the grass and flower pots.

“Even on that finely manicured grass in the multi-million dollar communities, they are there,” Tilford said. “Everybody has them.”

She is in the business of hunting for critters that are toxic to you or your pets.

Her business, Toad Busters, started as a way of hunting and removing invasive bufo toads.

But in the last several years, she also started finding more New Guinea flatworms in the mix.

“Unexpectedly, as we were looking for toads, we happened to run into this creepy looking, looks like a leach almost, worm and realized it was an invasive species,” Tilford said.

She did her research and learned she was up against a toxic threat.

The flatworm is coated with a toxin, but the biggest danger she said is the rat lungworm parasite they carry that can kill animals and cause a form of meningitis in humans.

“We have seen so many of them, like scary numbers,” Tilford said. “It’s something for me of major concern.”

The New Guinea flatworm made its way into the U.S. through South Florida in 2012.

It is now in a majority of Florida counties, preying on snails, slugs and earthworms that are essential to our native ecosystem.

With Tilford’s trained eye, they’re not too hard to spot.

Light reflects right off of their black slimy and toxic skin.

But even once you find them, there is a reason why they’re considered one of the worst invasive species in the world.

“They’re very hard to kill,” Tilford said. “There are very few things that actually kill them.”

Pouring boiling water on them for now is the best way to know they’re dead.

Even if you cut them into a dozen pieces, they’ll just grow into a dozen new worms.

Typically when she’s looking for these worms, Tilford said she’ll find as many as 50 to even 60 in an area no bigger than a floormat.

“I’ve been on properties where we’ve killed probably 60 worms in a matter of 10 minutes,” she said. “I just went to see a client who has a major infestation in Orlando. I’m getting calls from all over the place.”

She also worries about the worms slithering over gardens where people eat and playsets where children spend time.

In the meantime, she kills the worms that she finds until there is a better plan of attack.

“I know just when people start realizing how thick they are here, and how dangerous they can be, what it does with our environment,” Tilford said. “Something’s got to be done.”

If you see one of the worms, it’s important to handle it with gloves. The toxin on them can cause an allergic reaction.

Tilford is working with scientists on a spray for the worms that won’t hurt plants. However, that is still in the works as she is trying to help find a solution to the problem.

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