Where in the UK are New Zealand Flatworms and what are they up to?  It’s a good question, and people around the UK are being asked to help researchers from the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute pinpoint just how far an introduced species has spread throughout the UK. Annie Robinson, an OPAL community scientist from the University of Aberdeen explains.

New Zealand flatworm with egg

New Zealand flatworm with egg

The New Zealand Flatworm arrived on British soil over half a century ago but researchers have struggled to survey the species … as it is typically found in gardens. Although New Zealand Flatworms eat earthworms, it is not known what impact this has on earthworm numbers or on other animals that consume earthworms, like moles.

A new national Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) survey has been launched to help find out how far the New Zealand Flatworm has spread and how big an influence it is having on the environment.  http://www.opalexplorenature.org/nzflatworm

The New Zealand flatworm survey is the latest addition to the range of citizen science activities offered by OPAL, which is led by Imperial College London and run by a range of organisations including universities, wildlife groups, and museums.

The harmful potential of the New Zealand Flatworm makes it a creature of interest to OPAL and indeed many gardeners. New Zealand flatworms eat earthworms by wrapping their bodies around them and secreting digestive mucus to dissolve and consume them. They can survive for over one year by shrinking in size to as little as 10% of their full-grown body mass until they find another earthworm.

Members of the public who are keen to embark on some ‘citizen science’ to see if there is any sign of the New Zealand flatworm in their garden, are advised that the species is flat, dark purple-brown on top and creamy pale underneath and along the sides. They are usually 5-15 cm long and are pointed at both ends and covered in sticky mucus. They are found under pieces of wood, stone or polythene or lying on bare earth often curled up like a Swiss roll and they leave slime circles where they’ve been resting.

New Zealand flatworms are spread by moving topsoil or rooted plants between places, which allows this species to move from garden to garden. Current understanding of where in the UK they exist is very limited, but knowing their distribution could help target initiatives to prevent further introductions.

This is where you come in! Scientists at Aberdeen University and the James Hutton Institute would like the public’s help. If you find a New Zealand Flatworm in your garden or elsewhere, please take a photo and submit this along with its location to http://www.opalexplorenature.org/nzflatworm, or get involved in a short survey of your outdoor space. This will give the team an idea of what influence these flatworms may have on earthworms across the UK, and other animals that consume earthworms like moles.

Dr Brian Boag, one of the UKs New Zealand flatworm experts, based at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, said: “Avid gardeners will know whether they have New Zealand Flatworms on their premise or not, but this understanding is not passed on. Therefore, we would love to learn from people to get a clear picture of where these creatures are present and where not.”

Professor René van der Wal, from the University of Aberdeen, who is one of the leaders of this new initiative, said: “We want to get people looking carefully at their gardens and the greenspaces around the cities and towns they live, and school kids to explore their play grounds, in search of this rather peculiar species, and tell us what they’ve found. Ideally, they spend 10 minutes searching for flatworms, earthworms, beetles and signs of moles in a relatively structured way and tell us about their findings”.

Every record where you find them or not is invaluable and will help inform the development of our response to and research of the New Zealand Flatworm. People can go to the OPAL website and access identification, survey resources and submit pictures of the New Zealand Flatworm. Together we can learn a lot about where this species is and what it’s up to!


Further information

  1. The Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) network, led by Imperial College London, is a UK-wide partnership initiative that inspires communities to discover, enjoy and protect their local environments through citizen science-based activities. OPAL began in 2007, operating across England and funded by a Big Lottery Fund – Changing Spaces grant. Since January 2014, the programme has expanded to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland thanks to a further award from the Big Lottery Fund’s Supporting UK-wide Great Ideas programme. For more information, please visit opalexplorenature.org or follow us on Twitter @OPALNature
  1. A full list of OPAL partners can be found at http://www.opalexplorenature.org/PartnersandProjects
  2. The Big Lottery Fund (BLF) supports the aspirations of people who want to make life better for their communities across the UK. BLF are responsible for giving out 40% of the money raised by the National Lottery and invest over £650 million a year in projects big and small in health, education, environment and charitable purposes.       Since June 2004 BLF have awarded over £6.5billion to projects that make a difference to people and communities in need, from early years intervention to commemorative travel funding for World War Two veterans. Since the National Lottery began in 1994, £33 billion has been raised and more than 450,000 grants awarded.


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