The New Guinea flatworm is kind of a pest. In fact, it's considered one of the world's most invasive species. When it shows up uninvited to a region where it lacks natural predators, it makes itself at home -- at the cost of native species forced to compete with it. And now, the flatworm has made its way to mainland Florida, putting the whole country at risk of an invasion. Reports of the worm were published Tuesday in PeerJ.
Platydemus manokwari isn't dangerous to humans. Not directly, anyway. But it also isn't pretty: The very flat worm grows to about two inches long, and has a murky olive back and a pale belly -- a belly with a mouth in the middle of it. So it basically looks like a sneeze with eyes.
But while the New Guinea flatworm poses no danger to you, it could harm the ecosystem: The flatworm is known to feast on local snails wherever it lands, even climbing up trees to get to them. When the species showed up in France in 2014, researchers argued that consequences could be dire if the species wasn't eradicated immediately. The species is currently contained to a single hothouse, but hasn’t been eradicated.
"All snails in Europe could be wiped out," Jean-Lou Justine of France's National Museum of Natural History (who also led the most recent study) told The Guardian in 2014. "It may seem ironic, but it's worth pointing out the effect that this will have on French cooking."
But don't think you're safe if you don't have a taste for escargot: Snails -- and earthworms, which the flatworm goes after, if its prey of choice isn't around -- are important members of any ecosystem. Earthworms are important in supporting agriculture, and snails are a major source of food for many animals higher up the food chain. Unless Florida's birds develop a taste for flatworm (which is unlikely, because it reportedly has a taste too astringent to tempt even chickens) we might be in trouble.
The main concern -- both in France and in the United States -- is that New Guinea flatworms have been prolific on islands they've made their way to. It takes them a long time to end up on a new island, because they have to be carried in accidentally in some infested soil or plant matter. But now that the species has landed on large land masses -- like the continents of Europe and North America -- there's no telling how quickly it will be able to spread.