[An old, prizewinning essay from back in 1995 with some new photos added. Yes, the Australian flatworms are still here!]
The television screen faded. Torch in hand, I ventured out into the moist gloom of a Cornish evening to shut my pet rabbits in for the night. Gardener’s World’s images of invading New Zealand flatworms were still running through my head.
Suddenly, something on the ground gleamed brightly in the misty shaft of torchlight. It was a creature I had never seen before. Its alien appearance, with tapering head and ribbon-like body, was alarmingly reminiscent of the worm-devouring peril that had darkened my screen a few minutes before, but instead of being a sinister purple-brown and eight inches long, it was only half the size and a soft, flushed pink.
Anxiously, I waited while the rational part of my mind searched for alternitive identities for my discovery. Tapeworm? Slug? Leech?… I became aware of several more of the same species, stretched like tiny strips of wet bubble gum along the bottom of the wall or unhurriedly crossing the tarmac path.
That evening marked the start of my relationship with a primitive animals that I have come to know as Australoplana sanguinea or ‘Pinkie’, the Australian worm-eating flatworm.
I began collecting Australoplana in an attempt to save the local earthworms. When prodded gently the flatworms stuck to my fingertips, usually too slow and unprepared to gain refuge below ground. Two to three dozen could be gathered within half an hour, night after night. The first slimy specimens were wiped or shaken off my hands into a tub which I placed inside a knotted plastic bag. They soon escaped by making themselves so slim that they slipped right through the knot. Subsequent collections were securely sealed in screw-top jars, but after my habitual evening sorties, fresh hordes invaded my dreams.
By day the flatworms became folded and wrinkled, resembling fragments of discarded apple peel. These hideous peel-creatures could be found lurking in damp, dark places under doormats, under logs and under bricks in the company of slugs, centipedes and woodlice.
My searches began to include desperate hunts for earthworms. They revealed only the occasional massive specimen, lolling across the earth but retracting instantly when disturbed. Had the small earthworms been totally exterminated? No earthworms or flatworms appeared when a pond was dug in grass-covered loam at the bottom of the garden. It seemed that the attackers had annihilated their prey then moved on. Only the narrow front garden, protected from the flatworm colony by a wall, had seemingly escaped the antipodean scourge. Up there, the turf was packed with diminutive earthworms. I could have caressed their chubby bodies with relief.
The flatworms, despite their distasteful habit of liquidising earthworms, do hold their own special fascination. They wave their pointed front ends in the air like charmed snakes, testing their surroundings. They expand and contract like dough. They seem to have no face or features, just a couple of slits in the pale underbelly.
I tried washing the soil from a group of them so that they could have their photographs taken. I put them in a wire sieve under the tap, but instead of lying in the bottom of the sieve they slid through the holes and hung beneath, like strips of cheddar dangling from a cheese grater. When pulled, they just became longer and threaded themselves through more of the holes until there was a woven mat in the bottom of the sieve. Those which finally made it into the bright sunlight shrivelled up and died before the camera, reduced in minutes to tiny, withered scraps of flesh. I felt a pang of sympathy for the otherwise resilient newcomers. Abandoned in pots, others finally dissolved into a smelly mush, and so I began sending live specimens to a university laboratory for research purposes instead.
One day, I was able to send a flatworm egg capsule. It was black, surprisingly large and seemed at first to be a berry of some sort. I have heard that they are not laid, but erupt from the mother’s body. ‘Ugh’, remark inquisitive visitors.
Yes, I know that flatworms appear disgusting, but I cannot help feeling relieved that I am able to sacrifice these remarkable animals for the cause of scientific research. After all, is it not an ignoble death for a conqueror to be stamped upon or left to rot in a jar?