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Virginia "Snake" Sighting Turns Out To Be Giant Worm That Can Survive Decapitation

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Rachael Funnell

author

Rachael Funnell

Writer & Senior Digital Producer

Rachael is a writer and digital content producer at IFLScience with a Zoology degree from the University of Southampton, UK, and a nose for novelty animal stories.

Writer & Senior Digital Producer

These slimy cannibals can grow up to half a meter. LungMan/Shutterstock.com

These slimy cannibals can grow up to half a meter. LungMan/Shutterstock.com

Pest control workers operating in a suburb in Virginia were stumped by a foot-long, snake-like creature they didn’t recognize. According to a report from the Charlotte Observer, a now-deleted Facebook post from Virginia Wildlife Management and Control asked followers for help identifying a strange looking snake, which they photographed in Midlothian, Richmond. The animal in question was actually a hammerhead worm, also known as broadhead planarians, so named for their unusual heads that make them look a bit like a hammerhead shark. The mix up is understandable when you consider these bizarre creatures can grow up to 0.6 meters (2 feet) in length.

It’s a member of Bipalium, a genus of large predatory land worms that are unique for a “creeping sole” of tightly packed cilia on their underside that they use for locomotion. The effect sees them glide around a bit like a millipede and they’re surprisingly speedy. Far from ideal for their victims, which are mostly other worms and sometimes other hammerheads. While their hammer-like heads might lead you to think they eat from the front, their mouths are actually located mid-ventrally where they’ll push out their throat and excrete digestive enzymes, later sucking up the remaining worm soup.

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Hammerhead worms are largely invasive in the United States, and the illegal alien currently feasting in Virginia is a species native to Borneo that has been found hitching a ride on imported produce or plant material. They’re slimy in appearance with bold yellow coloration and a black strip, giving the effect of a cool racer stripe. They possess both male and female body parts and can reproduce asexually meaning the emergence of a small invasive population can quickly become a big problem, a bit like these mutant crayfish.

As if their explosive reproduction wasn’t tricky enough, they’re also not the easiest to kill. If you cleave a hammerhead flatworm in half it’ll just regenerate into two complete worms. The same can happen even if you chop them into seven parts, so to avoid accidentally raising a hammerhead worm army it’s suggested by pest control experts that you dissolve them in either salt or citrus oils. It may seem harsh, but hammerhead worms feed mostly on earthworms, which are a vital ingredient for healthy soils.


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