An invasive and potentially dangerous species of worm has been found in southern Florida, causing experts to warn anyone who sees them to take caution.
The New Guinea flatworm is reportedly so notorious for its effect on biodiversity that it has been named one of the 100 worst invasive alien species, according to IFL Science. The worm also poses a threat to humans, with the potential to spread a parasitic disease that can lead to meningitis.
"The discovery of this species in mainland America should be considered very bad news for biodiversity," said the Institute of Systematics, Evolution, and Biodiversity's Jean-Lou Justine. "It is a predator of land snails and of many other soil invertebrates. It can endanger existing populations of rare and threatened endemic snails."
The flatworms can reportedly destroy trees and other plants as well, according to Weather.com.
The worms had previously been discovered in Miami in May 2016, while a recent report has suggested that the worms may have been spotted in Cape Coral as early as September of 2015, WFTX reports.
"They're a dark worm with a dorsal orange stripe down the center of their back," said agriculture agent Roy Beckford, who added that if citizens see the flatworm, state officials "have a phone number that one can call to report this problem and they'll send an agent to actually deal with that. This is very serious, this is very serious."
Experts advise that pouring boiling water on the worms can kill them, but cautions residents not to touch the worms, in part because of a "caustic substance" that the worms can vomit up, which can affect human skin. Those who see the worms are advised to call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission before doing anything.
One of the biggest risks with the New Guinea flatworm is its potential to spread disease to rats, which can then pass the sickness on to humans.
"If you have long worms, basically, you start this horrible coughing," said Beckford. "It's a parasite in your lungs that needs to be treated."
Experts have said that the creatures, which previously mainly affected islands and had a limited spread, may have come to the U.S. by stowing away in shipments of tropical fruit or plants from the South Pacific. The worms could potentially spread from Florida to other states in the mainland U.S., which could reportedly threaten biodiversity in the Americas.
"It is crucial that we enforce more effective biosecurity policies, for example treating soils and machineries before moving them around the world, but also regulating more effectively the intentional movement of species for biocontrol or for other reasons," said Institute for Environmental Protection and Research senior conservation officer Piero Genovese.
"A more effective control of the movements of goods should be seen as an investment, as we know that invasive species cause huge economic losses globally as well as major health problems," Genovese said.