Join Plus+ and get exclusive shows and extensions! Subscribe Today!

Flesh-Eating Screwworms Invade the U.S.

We are screwed … if an infestation of New World Screw Worms in the Florida Keys spreads North, the Keys are facing the country’s first screwworm infestation since the 1960’s.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, says,

It’s been more than five decades since the screwworm infested Florida and I’ve grown up hearing horror stories from the occurrence.

The Cochliomyia (New World Screw Worm) Blowfly

The Cochliomyia (New World Screw Worm) Blowfly

Screwworms are nothing to mess with. The screwworm is the maggot of the Cochliomyia blowfly. It seeks out the wound of an injured warm-blooded animal to lay its larvae. The larvae feeds on the animals living flesh until they become pupa, drop to the ground to emerge as adult flies. In the meantime, a wound may contain hundreds of larvae.

As they literally use their tusk-like mandibles to eat their victim’s alive, their victim animals become incapacitated and eventually die. Infestations have decimated herds of livestock in the past. In humans, the larvae causes discomfort and itching. If it affects the mouth or lungs, it may cause serious damage. Pets are especially vulnerable.

Florida Keys Deer

Florida Keys Deer

Sadly, the endangered Key deer have fallen victim to this hideous parasite. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) detected the New World Screw Worm in deer earlier this month. Only one herd of 800 to 1,000 of the toy-sized deer exist. Already, at least 70 have succumbed. In the past two weeks alone, about 30 deer have died or been euthanized.

Heather Stockdale Waldon, a University of Florida parasitologist who identified the larvae, says,

I never suspected in a million years that it would come through my lab.

Dan Clark, head of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge that manages the deer herd says,

The (USDA) doesn’t work on wildlife, it’s almost always an ag (agriculture) problem. To have a wildlife species to be the first and then be one so endangered makes it even more complicated.

Monroe County has declared an agricultural state of emergency. Affected areas include Big Pine Key, Big Torch Key, Middle Torch Key, Little Torch Key, No Name Key, Cudjoe, Ramrod and Summerland.

There is currently a quarantine of all pets and livestock under way, with a mandatory checkpoint south of Mile Marker 109. Anyone leaving the Florida Keys with animals must stop for a mandatory inspection by agriculture officials. Over 600 people with animals have been checked.

The state of emergency expires on December 26 unless extended by officials.

Dan Clark adds,

We really want to see what the fly does. The bottom line is there’s certainly concerns. This is an event we haven’t experienced before in the refuge. There’s reason to be concerned. But the caveat is we’re still in the height of the rut. What I’m hoping is when the rut tapers off in December, there are fewer wounds out there.

Deer in rut tend to fight and get injured, the open wounds attracting the flies to lay larvae. If the flies linger until spring, they can endanger does and newborn fawns.

The fear of the infestation moving North is real. In addition to inspections, enhanced surveillance is also underway. The only know method to eradicate the pest is by introducing infertile male blowflies to halt reproduction.