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Photographs by cottonmanifesto.

Urban species #291: Terrestrial flatworm Bipalium adventitium

I'm making a more conjectural species identification this time than I usually do, if you can believe that. Bipalium adventitium is a species known to be in the United States from Illinois to New York, and spreading. I'm still waiting to hear from someone at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology to see if an identification to species is even possible. This type of animal I have seen exactly three times, each time under debris in the wooded part of Olmsted Park in Boston. What's reasonably certain is that this is an exotic animal, most likely introduced inadvertently with tropical plants or soil from Southeast Asia or Indonesia. When the flatworm specialist comes back from vacation, hopefully these photographs along with the dead specimen pickled in 70% alcohol in a vial on my mantel, will provide enough information to positively verify it's taxonomy and origin.

Terrestrial flatworms are predatory animals, in the group Platyhelminthes, a phylum more well-known for its many parasitic members. Of course, painting the terrestrial flatworm with the same broad brush applied to the liver fluke or tapeworm is about as fair as condemning all vertebrates for their relation to the kandiru, the tiny catfish whose existence makes urinating while swimming in the Amazon ill advised. That said, it can't be described as a beautiful creature, unless one has an uncommonly agreeable attitude toward natural beauty. Flattened and flaccid, yet muscular and sluglike, secreting a thick sticky mucus, and, when disturbed, forever waving its mushy little hammerhead around, it's certainly distinctive. Unlike its more famous relatives that spend most of their lives inside the bodies of other animals, this creature and its ilk feed on earthworms, tackling prey many times their own size. A terrestrial flatworm introduced to Ireland from New Zealand (an island group usually on the short end of the "alien invasive" stick) is eating through the annelid fauna of the Emerald Isle at an alarming rate. The ecological damage to Ireland, its soil, its crops, and its natural landscape has yet to be fully calculated, but the situation is worrying. Whether this flatworm in Boston is a cause for distress or not, is something I hope to determine.

Dear Dr./Mr Taylor,

Thanks so much for your email. No need to wait for Harvard, the animal in the
photo is almost definitely Bipalium adventitium. My students and I have
continued to work with this species and its relatives. This species is now
found from coast to coast from VA to MA and CA to OR. Boston should be right
near the northern extent of its range.

We are currently studying the animals from both ecological and molecular
perspectives. We would welcome new live specimens for use in either behavioral
expermeints or on-going DNA sequencing. I would be happy to pay for the
shipping of a few individuals, but since this is not covered by any grants, I'm
trying to pay only for shipments of more than one individual. If you are
interested and have some to send, I'd be happy to send you directions for their
safe shipment.

If you'd like additional information about our work, I'd be happy to send copies
of some of our papers about these amazing beasts.

Thanks again for letting me know about your find. We are maintaining a database
on the distribution of these flatworms in North America.


Pete Ducey
Department of Biological Sciences
State University of New York at Cortland
Cortland, NY 13045


( 83 comments — Leave a comment )
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Oct. 20th, 2006 12:10 am (UTC)
generally, i find anything except earth worms to be pretty gross. any sort of predatory worm seems rather nauseating. i had no idea of this type's existance, though - very interesting. :-|
Oct. 20th, 2006 10:53 pm (UTC)
this is amazing.
cool photos!
Oct. 20th, 2006 12:17 am (UTC)
Marine flatworms, on the other hand, are very beautiful.
Oct. 20th, 2006 12:42 am (UTC)
Pretty Cool Looking
It is certainly an interesting creature, and it appears your dog has made a positive ID even if you have not.... ;)

Perhaps we do associate them too much with parasites, but this is a creature perhaps I will observe one day (guess I should pick up more rotten logs or decomposing leaves!).
Oct. 20th, 2006 12:43 am (UTC)
Disgusting! I sometimes find them under rock and wood around here and when encountered, I immediately become a girly-girl, screaming and running away.

The last picture made me laugh out loud, though! (In fact, I'm still chuckling)
Oct. 20th, 2006 01:02 am (UTC)
My first thought upon seeing the picture was "Oh, an urban anchovy slice". :)

What an odd creature. Benign, hopefully.
Oct. 20th, 2006 10:29 am (UTC)
Omigod, it does look like an anchovy slice. Maybe I'll start using some form of the word "anchovy" as a common name, to see if it'll catch on! :)
(no subject) - cottonmanifesto - Oct. 20th, 2006 11:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spocks_girl - Oct. 20th, 2006 01:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - urbpan - Oct. 20th, 2006 02:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cottonmanifesto - Oct. 20th, 2006 05:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 20th, 2006 01:04 am (UTC)
So you're not worried that the unidentified slimy thing you've found under a rock won't crawl into your ear and begin controlling you?

Havn't you seen any movies?

I mean, why are we always expecting metal ships?

Oct. 20th, 2006 05:42 am (UTC)

I mean, why are we always expecting metal ships?

"I've never expected metal ships" *g*
(no subject) - urbpan - Oct. 20th, 2006 10:31 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 20th, 2006 01:35 am (UTC)
Looks like a leech. Interesting. :)
Oct. 20th, 2006 04:14 am (UTC)
Flatworm or Planeria
Austin, Texas -- November 26, 2005
Oct. 20th, 2006 10:32 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting!! They grow 'em big down in Texas.
Different species - (Anonymous) - Sep. 11th, 2007 12:29 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Different species - cdozo - Sep. 11th, 2007 12:49 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 20th, 2006 04:56 am (UTC)
i've yet to see anything like that. perhaps i'm too north, and i haven't been poking around the dirt in cambridge this summer.

hopefully, they are ... harmless enough here. cutting them in half isn't probably a good idea if found ;) i'd be tempted hunt them down though and end them if they're going to hurt my cute slugs much like i go a ripping through any of the loosestrife that visits.

cool animalicule, but you go home now!

Oct. 20th, 2006 05:43 am (UTC)

Cool little flatworm. I'm one of those weirdos who would consider it beautiful. But then, I'm always biased towards the invertebrates *g*
Oct. 20th, 2006 06:37 am (UTC)
Hi urbpan, nice to meet you! I found your LJ through Laura, and am very happy for that! I am a gardener myself, so I hope we can share the same interest -- I friended you :)
Oct. 20th, 2006 10:33 am (UTC)
Welcome! We have fun with this journal, and there are lots of nice people here.
(no subject) - cottonmanifesto - Oct. 20th, 2006 11:41 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - origa - Oct. 20th, 2006 08:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 21st, 2007 08:18 pm (UTC)
idk what this site is lol im lookn for stuff for oyster flatwoms for school lol im bord
May. 18th, 2007 02:46 am (UTC)
Flatworm found
It is 2007.05.MAY.17.THU.2130.CDT in Austin Texas
About two hours ago I was moving rocks from the easement at the street when I saw something I have seen before, many years earlier - a flatworm with a
spade-like head. So I gathered it up with some moist dirt and put it into a small plastic jar with a lid - it was moving around quite a bit, more than earthworms do - and brought it into the house to look it up on the Internet.
It took me over an hour to find this page, and the links within it, provide the pictures that help me sort of identify the creature. Your page is a
very good page.

I wonder how this creature survives, for the "soil" I found it in is a heavy clay with large-grained sand, and the particular spot is a pile of rocks I made a month ago and am now relocating. We had a heavy rain yesterday and the worm may have been washed out from another location, perhaps uphill from my house, and it was hiding the best it could from the sunlight (which in the afternoon bakes anything in this location).
Does it have poisonous skin? I doubt it, as I handled one years ago with no ill effect.
May. 25th, 2007 12:39 am (UTC)
I found one of these flatworms today in White Lake Michigan under a rock and found this sight because i was searching to find out what it was!

May. 29th, 2007 10:53 pm (UTC)
Just found one
I just found one of these in Dallas, Texas while moving bags of grass to the curb for trash day. It's been raining every day for a week so this is probably their ideal habitat right now.
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