The flatworm arrived on British soil over half a century ago but researchers have struggled to survey the species as they are typically found in gardens. Although New Zealand Flatworms eat earthworms, it is not known what influence this has on earthworm numbers or on other animals that consume earthworms like moles.
A new national Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) survey launched this month to help find out how far the New Zealand flatworm has spread and how big an influence it is having on the environment. 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.
Scientists at Aberdeen University and the James Hutton Institute are to research the flatworm.
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 all in the UK they exist is very limited, but knowing their distribution could help target initiatives to prevent further introductions.
Dr Brian Boag, New Zealand flatworm expert 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, 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."
Annie Robinson, an OPAL community scientist also from the University of Aberdeen, added: "Every record submitted is invaluable and will help inform the development of our response to and research of the New Zealand flatworm. People can go to the OPALwebsite 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."