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Sunday, 02 October 2005
The Kiwi Killers; Slimy invader with huge appetite for earthworms threatens countryside


The Daily Mail (London, England)


An invader from the other side of the world is threatening to wreak havoc in the Scottish countryside.

At first glance, the New Zealand flatworm seems an unlikely enemy, but its enormous appetite for earthworms make it a huge potential threat to wildlife and agriculture.

Earthworms perform a vital role, recycling nutrients required by plants and breaking down the structure of the soil to assist drainage.

The earthworm is also a part of a delicate food chain for other animals, and its possible disappearance threatens creatures like moles, badgers and hedgehogs.

Earthworms which encounter the killer creature literally meet a sticky end.

The flatworm covers its prey with caustic digestive juices causing it to slowly dissolve.

Estimates suggest that each of the soaring number of flatworms eat one or two earthworms per week. Top ecologist Dr Brian Boag yesterday said he believes the earthworm population is declining rapidly and has called on the Scottish Executive to urgently provide funding to combat the invader.

Retired Dr Boag, who used to work for the Scottish Crop Research Institute, said the flatworm poses a major threat to the livelihood of Scottish farmers.

He claims the true extent of the dangers which the flatworm presents requires further research, but minister have refused funding.

'The flatworm was first recorded in Scotland at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh in the 1960s,' Dr Boag explained.

'It is believed it came here in the soil of pot plants taken by Botanic Gardens from New Zealand.

'It was initially considered a curiosity but that status was reviewed in the 1980s when a study in Northern Ireland showed earthworm numbers were reduced to below detectable levels. This was as a result of the introduction of flatworms,' he added. 'I did a study for the Scottish Office in 1992 which showed they were widespread throughout Scotland.

'Basically they have spread from garden centres and botanic gardens into domestic gardens. They are now spreading into agricultural land.

'I get two or three recorded episodes of flatworm every week.

They are widespread as Shetland and Lewis. They cover the whole of Scotland.'

Dr Boag added: 'The population of moles in certain areas has disappeared. I would like to look at the implications for the rest of wildlife in Scotland.

'If moles are disappearing because of the flatworm eating their source of food then the impact may hit badgers and hedgehogs and other animals.

'It would be negligent of the Executive not to put money towards researching the impact of flatworms in this country.'

Flat Facts

Officially known as the earthworm-eater planarian, it has the jawbreaking Latin name Artioposthia triangulata

It comes from the Southern Hemisphere city of Christchurch, New Zealand, and arrived in Ireland and Scotland in the 1960s

The planarian eats the earthworms which normally help aerate and drain soils and cycle nutrients

It is pointed at both ends, dark-brown with a pale margin and pale underside.

At rest, it is about one inch long and 1/3 inch wide - but when moving it can stretch to nearly 12 inches

IT produces shiny black egg 'capsules', each with several young inside. In its native New Zealand, it probably evolved in beech forests of the Canterbury Plains 

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