Snails aren’t everyone’s favorite creepy crawlers, so the thought of a giant-sized one is the stuff of nightmares for some. But when Florida suffered from an infestation of them, chaos erupted for a different reason. Consequently, authorities readied extermination squads to fight the menace.
If you thought giant gastropods were consigned to campy horror flicks, then we’ve got a surprise for you. Say hello to the Lissachatina fulica, also known as the giant African land snail. Although the prospect of an 8-inch slimer sounds terrifying, they’re actually kind of cute.
At least, exotic pet lovers think so, although locals in their native habitats have a very different opinion. These giant snails originate in East Africa – unsurprisingly, given their name – where they have a maligned reputation. In fact, they’re considered pests in populated areas.
The snails’ bad PR is partly the result of their breeding efficiency. To be more specific, they thrive in mild climates and even more so in high humidity. Such temperatures are the perfect breeding ground for gastropods, and they’re prolific in the art of reproduction.
Gender doesn’t limit the giant snail’s choice of “dance partners,” either. They’re actually hermaphrodites, which means every snail possesses both male and female breeding organs. Consequently, they don’t even have to find a member of the opposite sex in order to get busy.
Furthermore, on the rare occasions when the snails live in smaller populations, they can even fertilize their own eggs. A single giant snail can lay more than 1,000 eggs annually, which is a lot of potential shell-babies. In conclusion, they can quickly create lots of children.
Despite their African origins, the snails have spread to Asia, the Caribbean and at one time even the U.S. Beginning in the 1960s, there was interest in these creatures from the exotic-pet industry. Many snails were imported, and some of them eventually found their way into the wild.
As a matter of fact, Florida was one of the areas worst hit by giant snail infestations. In response, Floridian authorities conducted an exhaustive snail extermination effort across the state. This ended up costing $1 million, but it was eventually successful.
By 1975 all of the invasive snails were thought extinct. However, although Florida remained free of its gastropod problem for 43 years, the peace didn’t last indefinitely. Someone reported finding another of the creatures in 2011, and the issue only became worse from there.
In a similar manner to the previous invasion, Miami subsequently became a breeding ground for giant snails. To illustrate the extent of the problem, the Florida Department of Agriculture (FDA) released a public service announcement. It read: “This is not science fiction, this is real.”
Given the rising number of giant snail sightings, Florida began another extermination program, aided by information from the public. Adam Putnam, the state’s commissioner of agriculture, explained the situation to CBS News in August 2015. For those with a fear of snails, it must have been terrifying.
“When the [eradication] program began, going into people’s backyards, we were seeing anywhere from dozens to hundreds,” Putnam said. “It was pretty scary.” An abundance of deserted properties and Miami’s humid environment made it the perfect breeding ground for the snail species.
“In the tropical environment that is Miami,” Putnam said, “you would really have this overgrown jungle in abandoned homes’ backyards crawling with snails. To see a yard full of 2-, 3-, 4-inch snails from the roofline of the house to the trees is a sight to behold.”
The Washington Post reported that Florida extermination squads found 700 specimens in just two houses, and disposed of 150,000 snails in total. Currently, state officials are cautiously optimistic that they’re free of the snail threat: December 2017 marked the most recent sighting of an invasive gastropod there.
The FDA’s information director, Christina Lawson, provided an update to The Dodo in August 2018. “Luckily, we were able to catch this early and were able to keep them out of the agricultural areas,” she said. And Lawson went on to detail how many snails the project had found.
“We have collected over 165,000 snails in the course of this [seven-year] program,” Lawson revealed. “For us to have them pop up again, it would most likely have to be another reintroduction.” But aside from their incredible breeding speed, what makes a giant African snail so unwanted?
Well, Putnam actually answered that very question in his The Washington Post interview. “As strange or funny as it sounds, it’s a threat to human health, the environment and agriculture,” he revealed. The first danger that giant snails can pose is from the parasites that they potentially carry.
Giant snails sometimes host rat lungworm, which can lead to humans contracting meningitis and suffering brain or nerve damage, which can on occasion be fatal. In addition, the snails are voracious herbivores, with a diet consisting of 500 plant species. Among these are common farm crops and produce such as peas and beans.
FDA public information officer Daniel Benjamin explained how “almost everything” was on the menu for these creatures. “We’d find marks on the sides of houses where the snails had been eating the stucco,” he told The Dodo. “Stucco contains calcium, which the snails consume to keep their shells healthy.”
Despite being considered nuisances, though, there’s still something oddly likable about the snails. And when they’re cared for by responsible owners, they do no harm. Moreover, we only have their story from the human perspective. Perhaps they were trying to leave Miami and just couldn’t move fast enough?