Beware of carnivorous hammerworms that wreak havoc on lawns

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (WHNT) – It is slimy, can be over a foot long, and has a head that resembles a very unique shark. Meet the hammer worm, which makes its way to the lawns of Alabama.

If you see any 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 definitely don’t want to pick them up with your bare hands because they can secrete this toxin and to our knowledge we don’t have a lot of research on this, but it can irritate your skin.” Katelyn Kesheimer said, entomologist at Auburn University and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

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

A second reason entomologists have worried about hammer worms is that they are not earthworm friends, which helps keep the soil healthy.

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

So far, Kesheimer says, the number of hammer worms does not appear to have increased enough to impact the worm population.

The worms are not new to the area but have appeared more frequently due to the wet summer in the area.

Native to Southeast Asia, worms have an affinity for hot, humid places. 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 website.

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

There is another pervasive threat to lawns in the Northeast, Midwest, South, and Southwestern 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, soybeans, alfalfa and other cultivated fields in a matter of days.

The Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), so called because of its penchant for walking through landscapes, is not a worm but a striped caterpillar.

Stewart Caterpillars said the scale of this year’s infestation was unprecedented, aided by the good weather, which allowed them to start en masse. He also said that there is evidence to suggest that they may develop greater resistance to certain insecticides.

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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