Creepy Looking Toxic Slime Coated Worm Spotted in East Tennessee

TVA officials confirm sightings of this toxic slime work just north of Knoxville, TN. These worms tend to thrive in rainy weather and wet conditions (photos by Wirestock and samuel howell/iStockPhoto.com)

TVA has indicated that Hammerhead worms have been spotted around Norris, Tennessee, just north of Knoxville and may thrive in rainy summer weather

As someone who has been digging in the East Tennessee earth for more than 30 years, I thought I had a handle on most of the creepy crawlies one might encounter. I’ve turned over rocks and scared up black widow spiders. I’ve run across snakes and scorpions and harmless but disturbing salamanders. But until recently, I’ve never feared a worm. Now, it turns out Tennessee is being invaded by a species of striped worms that can grow more than a foot long, secrete neurotoxins like a puffer fish and can reproduce by breaking off a bit of itself and leaving it behind. And oh yeah, it has a head like a hammerhead shark. 

According to the Tennessee Valley Authority, Hammerhead flatworms – which thrive in humid, tropical or sub-tropical areas – have made their way to Tennessee. It’s not hugely surprising as the species is a known “hitchhiker” traveling to greenhouses and gardens around the country in landscaping and mulch items. However, as a predatory non-native species, the Hammerhead flatworm could pose a serious problem for the local ecosystem. 

a hammerhead worm
The Hammerhead worm reproduces by a method known as fragmention (photo by samuel howell/iStockPhoto.com)

What is it? 

Every article on the internet describes the Hammerhead as a terrestrial flatworm. While I am not a worm scientist – vermeologist – I would have thought that all worms are terrestrial worms. The only other alternative that comes to mind would be celestial worms – or extra-terrestrial worms, I suppose – and since I’ve never seen a flying worm or worm in space, I’d just assume the terrestrial part is understood and wouldn’t have to be quite so emphasized. 

Nevertheless, this particular terrestrial flatworm made its way to the United States from Southeast Asia early in the 20th Century. Tennessee has not been listed as part of the toxic worm’s U.S. habitat. But the TVA has indicated that they’ve been spotted around Norris, Tennessee, just north of Knoxville and may thrive in rainy summer weather. 

The worms themselves – also known as shovelhead worms – feed on other earth-dwelling invertebrates like earthworms and the like. While egg cases have been found, scientists haven’t observed the worms making out or in more scientific terms sexual reproduction. It seems the worms’ more frequent reproduction technique is through a process known as fragmentation. The worm breaks off a little piece of itself down towards the rear and leaves it behind. Over the next 10 days, that piece will grow its own hammerhead and start worming around. This can happen a few times a month. The Texas Invasive Species Institute very helpfully suggests making sure you get rid of the whole worm when disposing of one of these little alien things. 

a closeup of a hammerhead worm
While coming into contact with a Hammerhead worm isn’t necessarily a life threatening event, their slime may cause a rash and they may carry parasites which can be harmful to humans (photo by samuel howell/iStockPhoto.com)

Is it dangerous? 

Yes and no. Like is the Hammerhead worm gonna kill you? No. Its toxic slime can give you a bit of a rash and its reproduction system is the stuff of nightmares. But it can’t technically hurt a human. What they can do, however, is upset the ecological balance in the region. By eating earthworms that perform an important duty in the soil, the Hammerhead can affect the basic health of overall soils. They also can carry a type of parasite known as nematodes which can be harmful to humans. That’s why the TVA says not to handle one with your bare hands. I mean, that is pretty good advice all around.

a hammerhead worm outside
Salt and/or rubbing alcohol are two of the best methods for killing the Hammerhead worm (photo by wichatsurin/iStockPhoto.com)

What to do if you find one

Kill it. Kill it dead. The first option that leaped to mine with me was fire. Kill it with fire. I don’t care how many pieces you break off. If you burn that sucker to a crisp it ain’t growing back. However, I feel it’s important to emphasize that while I did quite well on the science portion of the ACT, I never in fact became a scientist. From my understanding, killing things with fire is frowned upon. That is, at least within most of the scientific community, with a couple of noted exceptions. 

No, the TVA says the best way to deal with a Hammerhead worm – also called a hammerhead snail – is the old Sparta method. Just salt that bad boy like a watermelon in summer. Salt it up and down. Leave no toxic, slimy, striped part of that worm unsalted. Rubbing alcohol also works apparently. However, if you don’t want to give the worm a fatal rubdown or season it into oblivion, TVA says you can also place it in a bag and freeze it. The TVA, however, does not indicate how you can explain it to friends or family if they find bags of frozen hammerhead worms in your freezer. You’re on your own with that one, I suppose. 

We are at war with another invasive species like kudzu. This one, a toxic predatory flatworm with a head like a shovel, can upset the ecological balance in East Tennessee soil. Each of us has been deputized to kill these foot-long nightmare worms on sight. So go ahead and make plenty of room in your freezer and/or stock up on salt. Good luck. Let’s be careful out there. 

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