Rat-Sized Snails Invade Northern Florida
April 15, 2013

Rat-Sized African Snails Threaten Florida, Communities Take Action

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Officials in Florida are warning the public about a potential infestation of a massive African snail that can grow to the size of a rat and ravage both plant-life and housing materials such as stucco and plaster.

The snails have also been known to carry a parasitic nematode that can lead to meningitis in humans.

“They're a trifecta,” said Denise Feiber, the public information director of the Division of Plant Industry in Gainesville. “They're a risk to property, health and agricultural resources and landscapes.”

Some Caribbean countries are already overrun by the snails, which have been known to puncture car tires when run over.

Feiber said that over 1,000 snails are being caught each week in the Miami-Dade area and a total of 117,000 have been caught since the first report in September 2011 by a homeowner. The danger of an infestation is further elevated by the mollusk´s reproduction rate, as a typical snail can produce about 1,200 eggs a year.

The snails originally come from eastern Africa but have been dispersed throughout the world through the pet trade, as a food resource, and through the unwitting transmission via agricultural products. According to Feiber, experts are looking into a Miami Santeria religious group, which has roots in West African and Caribbean cultures, as a potential source. The group in question was found to be using the large snails in its rituals in 2010, she said.

Last week, experts held a Giant African Land Snail Science Symposium in Gainsville to formulate a strategy for eradicating the snails.

“What we did is we brought in experts from all over the country,” said Trevor Smith, a scientist and bureau chief at the plant industry in Gainsville. “The idea was to look at our program in Miami and ask ourselves: How are we doing? I can't think of another meeting where we've had this many African snail specialists together. Some great ideas came out.”

One of the developments to come out of the meeting was the improvement of the poisoned bait used to kill the snails. Scientists are also working to examine targeted areas and remove snails they find, taking them back to the lab for a freezing and further testing, Feiber said. She added that the measures were already beginning to produce results.

“We're still collecting 400 to 500 (snails) a week,” Feiber said, “but the good news is, more and more are deceased when we find them.”

Despite the progress, Smith warned that the snails pose a significant threat if they are not dealt with properly.

“I think it has the capability to travel up to North Florida,” he said. “You could ask anybody in South Florida and they know about it. It's in the papers. It's on TV. We have billboards, we have fliers. It's on the side of the buses. But in the rest of Florida “¦ I'm not so sure.”

He added that officials plan to continue to spread the word to communities outside of southern Florida.