Hammerhead flatworms not only sound and look like aliens, but they’re often acting as them too, spreading across the globe as invasive species in parts of the world. Now, two new species that have popped up in Europe and Africa are described in a new paper, one of which has been named after the COVID-19 pandemic.
You might wonder how something with no arms, legs, or grasp of public transportation is able to spread with such vigor, but the answer is simple: the plant trade. Yes, these wriggly nomads have been hitching a ride hidden within the plant babies that are shipped about to leafy-minded individuals and admirers.
One of the two new species has been named Humbertium covidum "as homage to the numerous casualties worldwide of the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote the authors in an article published in the journal PeerJ.
It marks an unusual entry into the hammerhead flatworm family, being metallic black all over. Having been discovered wriggling its way through gardens in France and Italy, the species is potentially an invasive one as it’s expected to have originated from Asia.
Next up we have Diversibipalium mayottensis, a diddy hammerhead flatworm at just 30 millimeters (1.2 inches) long. What it lacks in size it makes up for in style, being dressed in an iridescent green-blue speckled over brown.
So far, it’s only been found on a French island in the Mozambique Channel, Indian Ocean, where it possibly traveled to from Madagascar. This worm actually sits in a sister group to hammerhead flatworms, in the subfamily Bipaliinae, making it a Pokémon shiny find for understanding flatworm evolution.
You might think it’s a lot of fuss for two wet shoelaces found in a handful of gardens, but land flatworms (some of which are huge) have a remarkably detrimental influence on the ecosystems they invade. They’re fond of feeding on soil animals like slugs, snails, and earthworms.
“Good riddance,” I hear you cry, “they’re hot for my dahlias!” But the eradication of these garden staples has a catastrophic effect on soil ecology, something we need in tip-top condition if we’re going to grow anything.
The species’ identification comes, in part, thanks to lockdown, as without access to the field Jean-Lou Justine and colleagues instead turned to their records to get on a species-name level with some hammerhead flatworms.
“Due to the pandemic, during the lockdowns most of us were home, with our laboratory closed,” said Justine in a statement. “No field expeditions were possible. I convinced my colleagues to gather all the information we had about these flatworms, do the computer analyses, and finally write this very long paper.”
And all you did was make banana bread. Tsk.