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Hammerhead worms seen at Williamson home

There is a battle going on underground in Pike and across the state and Windell Peters has seen several of the combatants – hammerhead worms. The snake-like worm, also known as shovel-headed garden worms, are carnivorous and feed primarily on earthworms and other soil dwelling invertebrates. Peters said he has seen about six different hammerhead worms on his Williamson property, starting about five weeks ago. ’We saw them quite frequently at first on a concrete patio and paved parking area in the rear of my house,’ he said. The worms have mouths that are midway down the bottom surface of their bodies rather than on their heads and they produce tetrodotoxin, the same deadly neurotoxin produced by pufferfish, according to a study from Utah State University. ’There is not enough research on the function of the toxin within the worm’s biology, but it is speculated that the toxin may help the worms to catch prey or to avoid being eaten themselves,’ said University of Georgia agriculture extension agent James Murphy. ‘While the worms do not appear to secrete enough of the toxin through the skin to be considered dangerous, exercise caution as tetrodotoxin is very dangerous.’ Records indicate the species has been in the U.S. for nearly a century and Murphy says recent sightings could be tied to people having greater access to cameras and identification resources. ’The other potential reason could be tied to climate change and human migration,’ Murphy said. ‘Since these worms are often spread through soil, it is possible that an influx of exotic plants into an area along with rising temperatures could lead to increased populations.’ Murphy says he is unaware of any state initiatives to combat the spread of the worm, as it does not threaten crops directly and is mainly only a danger to ‘commercial earthworm rearing operations.’ ’I don’t think there’s a need to sound an alarm just yet,’ Murphy said. ‘I do think it is prudent to encourage people to continue to report sightings to authorities such as the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, Georgia Department of Agriculture, or USDA APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) so we can track their spread.’ Murphy does not advise people to touch the worms with their hands. He said if they choose to dispatch the worms, they can use hot water or place them in dry paper towels to desiccate them. After researching the worm, Peters put table salt on the worms discovered in Pike County to get rid of them. Murphy said since the worms can reproduce from cut body sections, that would not be an advisable way to kill them.

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