The toxin is reportedly the same deadly neurotoxin produced by the pufferfish, according to CNN, which cited a study from Utah State University.
Another strange feature of the worm is that its mouth is not located on its head but midway down the ventral side of its body. Even creepier, planarians are known to regenerate into two separate creatures if they are cut in half.
The animal is carnivorous and known to feast on earthworms and other soil-dwelling invertebrates, but it has few predators itself, making the species difficult to control.
The worm is not considered a threat to crops.
University of Georgia agriculture expert James Murphy confirmed the recent sightings around the state, while the social networking service iNaturalist reported the worrisome number of cases in Atlanta, according to CNN.
Murphy warned anyone who encounters the worm to exercise caution because tetrodotoxin can be dangerous if absorbed through the skin.
Experts say the species has been in the United States for nearly a century, first appearing in Northeast states. The species is believed to have migrated to the U.S. through plant soil.
Murphy attributed the widespread sightings to climate change and migration, but also to widespread amateur sleuthing with the advent of camera phones and online resources.
“Since these worms are often spread through soil, it is possible that an influx of exotic plants into an area along with rising temperatures could lead to increased populations,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s a need to sound an alarm just yet,” Murphy said. “I do think it is prudent to encourage people to continue to report sightings to authorities such as the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, Georgia Department of Agriculture, or USDA APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) so we can track their spread.”