Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Peter Ducey

By: Grace Mortellaro, NYISRI Summer Intern

A world of life is teeming beneath our feet and researchers like Dr. Peter Ducey are working to help us better understand it. Introduced species are changing the complex biological fauna that our soil has supported in the past. Managing some of these organisms is a complex challenge, and one for which we have yet to come up with solution.

Earthworms in particular have become a subject of debate when it comes to maintaining our native ecosystems. You may be familiar with the benefits earthworms provide to agriculture as well as the detriments invasive earthworms from Europe and Asia have wrought. These worms ravage our forest floors, leaving next to nothing for native organisms to feed on, altering what can live in these conditions.  But even most researchers aren’t familiar with non-native flatworms that prey on earthworms, native and non-native alike. Unbeknownst to some, Bipalium flatworms have existed beneath our feet in North America for about 100 years. The extent of their ranges and many of their other characteristics remained unknown until Ducey’s work. He has helped us discover the range of the four species present in the Americas, two of which are predominant.

Dr. Peter Ducey

Bipalium adventitium, an invasive flatworm

Photo: P. Ducey

Ducey is enthusiastic to broaden our knowledge of these creatures. Even in their homeland, which is believed to be eastern Asia, little is known about them.  Since little is known, there is much to discover.  Earthworms are up to 100 times their size, so their predatory behavior is intriguing.  Each individual flatworm is a hermaphrodite so any individual can mate with another, but they can also reproduce asexually by fragmenting and then regenerating.  Flatworms can be difficult to study because they avoid sunlight and dry soil but they are often present below the surface on which we walk and live.  A team of researchers including Ducey has also discovered that these flatworms produce tetrodotoxin, the toxin found in pufferfish, however they have not yet determined its function in flatworm biology.

As destructive earthworms have moved their way through our soils, these planarians have followed them, consuming invasive and native on their path. However, since much is unknown about the flatworms, Ducey does not recommend attempting to manage them. Whether chemical or physical, control strategies would harm other native soil organisms as well.  He also deters anyone from introducing these flatworms into an area for the purpose of controlling earthworm populations. Since we are only discovering their biology now, we’re a long way from determining their ecological impacts.  Ducey recommends that we wait until more is known about these planarians until we draw conclusions on how they should be managed.

It takes an ambitious researcher like Ducey to venture into unknown topics like these Bipalium.  In addition to flatworms, Ducey studies amphibians and reptiles, more specifically those in disturbed habitats.  As human activity continues to affect the natural world, Ducey strives to understand how these animals adapt and continue to survive under new conditions.  In addition to his research, Dr. Ducey, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at SUNY Cortland, encourages students to pursue their curiosities through teaching courses and guiding undergraduate students in research.

Read more about Dr. Peter Ducey and his research on his webpage.