Rat-Sized Snails Are Invading Florida

More than 1,000 giant African land snails are being caught each week in Miami-Dade County.

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Florida Department of Agriculture Division of Plant Industry / REUTERS

A Giant African land snail, which can grow as big as a rat and gnaw through stucco and plaster.

Parts of the Sunshine State could soon be overrun by house-eating snails that grow to the size of rats.

Reuters reports that more than 1,000 giant African land snails are being caught each week in Miami-Dade County, southern Florida. The snails grow up to 7 inches long and eat “pretty much anything that’s in their path and green,” Denise Feiber, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told Reuters. They also have a penchant for stucco (which contains calcium, vital for a healthy shell) making them a menace to homeowners.

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When the state’s rainy season begins in seven weeks’ time the snails, which can produce around 1,200 eggs a year, will start to emerge from their winter hibernation – at which point residents of southern Florida should perhaps brace themselves for the type of scene common in Barbados, where the snails coat walls and pavements with slime and excrement and are often blamed for blowing out car tires on highways. As if that weren’t bad enough, the snails also carry a parasitic rat lungworm which can cause illness in humans, including a type of meningitis, although no such cases have yet been reported in the U.S.

It’s still unknown where or how the infestation started. One possible source is practitioners of Santeria, a religion with West African and Caribbean roots, who in 2010 were found to be using the snails in their rituals, writes Reuters. But Feiber said the snails are sometimes brought into the U.S. by accident. “If you got a ham sandwich in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic, or an orange, and you didn’t eat it all and you bring it back into the States and then you discard it, at some point, things can emerge from those products,” she said. The last known Florida invasion of the giant snails was in 1966, when a boy returning to Miami from vacation in Hawaii brought back three of them, notes Reuters. His grandmother subsequently released the snails into her garden; the population grew to 17,000 within seven years. The state spent a decade getting rid of them, at a cost of $1 million.

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Although their size and apparent friendliness might make giant African land snails seem a cute choice of pet, Feiber strongly warned against treating them as such. “They’re huge, they move around, they look like they’re looking at you… communicating with you, and people enjoy them for that,” she told Reuters. “But they don’t realize the devastation they can create if they are released into the environment where they don’t have any natural enemies and they thrive.”

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