Giant worms chez moi! Hammerhead flatworms (Platyhelminthes, Geoplanidae, Bipalium spp., Diversibipalium spp.) in Metropolitan France and overseas French territories.
Background: Species of the genera Bipalium and Diversibipalium, or bipaliines, are giants among land planarians (family Geoplanidae), reaching length of 1 m; they are also easily distinguished from other land flatworms by the characteristic hammer shape of their head. Bipaliines, which have their origin in warm parts of Asia, are invasive species, now widespread worldwide. However, the scientific literature is very scarce about the widespread repartition of these species, and their invasion in European countries has not been studied. Methods: In this paper, on the basis of a four year survey based on citizen science, which yielded observations from 1999 to 2017 and a total of 111 records, we provide information about the five species present in Metropolitan France and French overseas territories. We also investigated the molecular variability of cytochrome-oxidase 1 (COI) sequences of specimens. Results: Three species are reported from Metropolitan France: Bipalium kewense, Diversibipalium multilineatum, and an unnamed Diversibipalium 'black' species. We also report the presence of B. kewense from overseas territories, such as French Polynesia (Oceania), French Guiana (South America), the Caribbean French islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy, and Montserrat (Central America), and La Réunion island (off South-East Africa). For B. vagum, observations include French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin, Montserrat, La Réunion, and Florida (USA). A probable new species, Diversibipalium sp. 'blue,' is reported from Mayotte Island (off South-East Africa). B. kewense, B. vagum and D. multilineatum each showed 0% variability in their COI sequences, whatever their origin, suggesting that the specimens are clonal, and that sexual reproduction is probably absent. COI barcoding was efficient in identifying species, with differences over 10% between species; this suggests that barcoding can be used in the future for identifying these invasive species. In Metropolitan south-west France, a small area located in the Department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques was found to be a hot-spot of bipaliine biodiversity and abundance for more than 20 years, probably because of the local mild weather. Discussion: The present findings strongly suggest that the species present in Metropolitan France and overseas territories should be considered invasive alien species. Our numerous records in the open in Metropolitan France raise questions: as scientists, we were amazed that these long and brightly coloured worms could escape the attention of scientists and authorities in a European developed country for such a long time; improved awareness about land planarians is certainly necessary.