Beware of carnivorous hammerhead worms wreaking havoc on lawns

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — It’s slimy, can grow to be over a foot long and has a head that resembles a very unique shark. Meet the hammerhead worm, making its way to lawns across Alabama.

If you see one of these invasive worms — also called bipalium — don’t pick it up. Experts say the worm emits a toxin that can irritate your skin.

“You certainly don’t want to pick them up with your bare hands, because they can secrete that toxin and as far as we know, we don’t have a ton of research on this, but it can cause your skin to be irritated,” said Katelyn Kesheimer, an entomologist with Auburn University and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

If they are around, experts say you should also keep an eye on your dog and young kids, though so far no serious reactions to the worm have been reported. If you happen to touch one of the worms, experts suggest simply washing the affected area with soap and water.

A second reason entomologists have been concerned about Hammerhead worms, they are not a friend of the earthworm, which helps keep soil healthy.

“They are carnivores, which means they eat other insects, and their food of choice is earthworms,” said Kesheimer.

So far, Kesheimer says, the number of hammerhead worms doesn’t appear to have grown large enough to impact the population of earthworms.

The worms aren’t new to the area but have been popping up in greater frequency due to the wet summer in the region.

Native to Southeast Asia, the worms have an affinity for hot, humid locations. In addition to Alabama, they are known to thrive in California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, according to the Texas Invasive Species Institute’s website.

If you spot a hammerhead, Kesheimer says there is no need to call an exterminator or lawn expert. A small amount of vinegar or salt can easily kill the worm. You shouldn’t, however, cut it into pieces because it would simply regrow its tail.

There’s another pervasive threat to lawns across the Northeast, Midwest, South, and Southwest United States.

Scott D. Stewart, an entomologist at the University of Tennessee who writes The Conversation, said armyworms, an annual problem, can turn lawns from green to brown, sometimes in less than 48 hours, and can completely defoliate rice, soybean, alfalfa, and other crop fields in a matter of days.

The fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), so called because of its penchant for marching across landscapes, isn’t a worm but a striped caterpillar.

The caterpillars Stewart said the scale of this year’s infestation has been unprecedented, aided by good weather, something that allowed them to start off en masse. He also said there is evidence suggesting that they may be developing more resistance to certain insecticides.

Stewart added that a warming climate may also be a factor, saying “it will allow these and other subtropical and tropical insects to expand their territories northward.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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