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Rat lungworm is Spreading in Hawaii Due to an Invasive Semi-slug

Invasive semi-slugs are spreading rat lungworm throughout the big island of Hawaii, but there are ways the general public can help.

There is likely nothing more effective at instilling a love for scientific inquiry in the hearts of children than taking them out into the field and letting them get their hands dirty. That’s exactly what science teacher Cristy Athan thought when she decided to take her middle school class on a field trip to identify the presence of invasive semi-slugs in North Kohala, Hawaii. Though the name might sound innocuous, semi-slugs are one of the most potent vectors for a disease called rat lungworm; a disease that poses a threat to human health and wildlife alike.

Polulu Valley Lookout in Kohala. Credit: Jdan57

Part of the life cycle of this disease involves the larvae being consumed by the semi-slug which is then eaten by an invasive rat. When rat lungworm is able to complete its life cycle, it can cause immense and irreparable damage to any human being that consumes it. There is currently no cure or effective treatment.

Rat-Lungworm lifecycle. Credit: CDC

Interestingly, just two years ago, there was not a semi-slug to be found on North Kohala. Yet, today it is well established and spreading quickly. One of the key concerns is that it will spread to Waimea; an agricultural hub for the region, which could suffer crop damage and decreased yields from the presence of the semi-slug. Franny Brewer, communications director with the Big Island Invasive Species Council said:  

It being in Kohala brings it so much closer, and that’s nerve wracking having seen how quickly it moved around the island in the last 10 years. It’s moved very fast, and so we’re very nervous about Waimea.”

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The big island of Hawaii. Credit: Bruce Tuten

If potential agricultural harm wasn’t enough of a concern, if a human contracts rat lungworm it could cause severe disability and in the most serious cases, death. However, some cases cause no lasting human harm.

It’s crucial that the residents of North Kohala learn to safely and effectively identify and dispose of the semi-slug when found. Just like Cristy Athans middle school class. Brewer noted the importance of residents doing their part to address the issue and avoiding complacency amidst this ongoing problem:

If people don’t know it’s in the area, it’s one of those things people think, ‘Oh, that’s an east side problem or a Hilo problem or a Puna problem. I think there’s a tendency in all of us to think there are dangers out there, but (that we’re) safe. ‘It’s not going to affect me.’ That’s how our minds work. We go into denial.”

So what can be done? Not only is there power in the hands of each resident to help in alleviating this issue, but two bills are currently moving through the state Legislature in Hawaii this session to help. Recently, 12 cases of rat lungworm have also been reported in the continental U.S., so this legislation could act as a model framework for other regions as well. Removing invasive semi-slugs as well as controlling invasive rat populations can be beneficial since they are both involved in the RLW life cycle.

The pending legislation and the noble efforts of local citizens will rectify this issue going forward. The future is bright for regions currently struggling with the introduction of invasive semi-slugs.

Source: West Hawaii Today
Featured Photo: Coastal view of Kohala Credit: Martha Heinemann Bixby

About Stephanie Dittrich

Stephanie Dittrich is a current senior in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz and a transfer student from De Anza College. She is also currently pursuing a Certificate of Achievement in Geospatial Technologies and a second Associates Degree in Graphic Design from Foothill College. She has worked in multiple marketing and design focused roles at environmental nonprofits as well as the Genomics Institute at UC Santa Cruz. She just finished spending 3 months in Costa Rica conducting field work where she did an independent research project and wrote a scientific paper about flight response time in the Morpho peleides butterfly. In her spare time, Stephanie enjoys working on creative photography and design projects, often centered around wildlife photography, as well as more experimental and contemporary subject matter.

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