WHILE many Donegal people have headed down under to set up home in recent years, one of the worst aliens to move in the opposite direction has been the New Zealand flatworm.
Earlier this week, a science teacher at Errigal College in Letterkenny, John McClean, unearthed one while preparing the ground for Nobel Prize Winner, Professor William Campbell, to plant a tree at the school.
Having first come across the worm almost twenty years ago this was the first one Mr McClean has seen in Letterkenny.
They first turned up in a couple of gardens in Belfast in 1963, but very quickly spread to Scotland which fits with their distribution in New Zealand, where they are confined to the cooler and damper parts of the South Island.
“It feeds on native earthworms that provide important ecosystem services as well as currying favour with farmers for enhancing the fertility and drainage of agricultural soils. It’s akin to letting a wolf loose into a field of sheep,” Mr McClean said.
The main colour is dark purple-brown, with a paler lower surface. They spend a lot of their time curled into a spiral, but when fully extended they can be up to eight inches long.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom.
“When they run out of earthworms they tend to die off themselves. I suppose it’s the predator prey balance and the earthworm is making a steady comeback in other parts of the world the New Zealand flatworm has made its way to,” Mr McClean said.
In the chemistry lab, Mr McClean showed the Nobel Laureate a New Zealand flatworm in a jar he had dug out that morning while preparing the ground for Prof Campbell to plant a tree in memory of his visit.
“There are quite a few in Ramelton and they should really not be here,” Mr McClean said. Both scientists agreed they could possibly have arrived here with seed potatoes.
Prof Campbell was awarded the Novel Prize for Medicine together with Japanese scientist Satoshi Omura, for discovering avermectins, which kill infection-causing parasitic roundworms which cause river blindness.
Our ecosystems and farms would benefit from their removal and the simple advice, should you meet one of these relative newcomer to Ireland’s shores, is to squash them!
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