Dan Barrett searches for a peripatus specimen in a Dunedin
reserve earlier this year. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
The range of a rare carnivorous worm within Dunedin city
limits has been described as "miraculous" by a University of
Otago masters student who is studying the elusive creatures.
American Dan Barrett, of Oregon, who is researching the range
of the peripatus worm as part of a masters degree in wildlife
management, was "surprised" by how widespread it was in
The peripatus is a 500-million-year-old species often called
a "living fossil" and the "missing link" between worms and
The worm, which has an average length of 30mm, kills its prey
by rearing up on its haunches and shooting a stream of a
glue-like substance which disables its victim. It then
injects saliva to dissolve its prey's innards and sucks out
the resulting meal, which it feeds on at its leisure.
Based on about 250 hours of field work and maps of housing
density and soil type, Mr Barrett had concluded it was likely
the worm was "pretty widespread" throughout the city's green
belt and in moist areas where there was a thick canopy of
trees, which had not been logged in the recent past. It was
even possible for them to be found in backyards close to
"It's pretty miraculous, because in the scientific literature
on these things there is only one other report of peripatus
being found anywhere near city limits, near Puerto Vallarta,
in Mexico," he said.
The worms were so rare that many people who studied them had
never seen one in the wild, Mr Barrett said.
Dunedin was "very lucky" to be home to the worm and it was
important that their habitat was looked after because they
were "really sensitive" to habitat disturbance.
One of the reasons why the worms may have continued to live
in Dunedin was because unlike in many other cities rotting
logs, which are a perfect environment for the worms, were not
removed from council-owned forests.
"The moral is to keep the green belt pretty wild, don't go in
to try and clean it up too much with all the rotten logs and
stuff," he said.
Mr Barrett was also keen to remind people not to destroy logs
or disturb the worms potential environment in an attempt to
"It's really interesting to know that they could be there,
but the actual process of finding them ... will make it so
they won't want to come back again."
The peripatus first gained attention last year when it was
reported that a New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) project
to widen the Caversham highway to four lanes threatened some
of the worm's habitat.
NZTA alleviated concerns about the project by coming up with
a relocation plan.