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Officials battle giant, rat-sized snails in Florida [video]

This post has been corrected. Please note at bottom for details.

April 15, 2013|By Deborah Netburn

Florida has a snail problem. And it's a big one.

The southern part of the state is being invaded by the giant African land snail, a species of snail that can grow up to 8.5 inches in length and that snacks on stucco, car tires and 500 types of plants.

"Just about anything you grow in the garden is on their menu," said Denise Feiber, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The giant snails can also carry a parasitic nematode called the rat lungworm that can lead to a form of meningitis in humans who come into contact with the snail's mucus.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs suggests the public avoid handling the snails entirely, and carefully wash all produce that may have come into contact with snails before eating.

Nobody in Florida has contracted the disease through the snails as yet. 

The giant African land snail is native to East Africa, but it thrives in tropical areas like the Hawaiian Islands, and in the Caribbean. It can live to be up to 9 years old and may start reproducing just four months after its birth. Fertile snails can lay up to 1,200 eggs in a year.

It's been less than two years since the first great African land snail showed its gelatinous-looking head in South Florida, but officials have already captured 117,000 snails and are capturing an additional 1,000 a week.

The snails tend to cluster in damp areas -- near hoses, under dripping air conditioners, at the base of plants where there is a lot of leaf debris, or around the base of potted plants. But they also burrow underground so they can be hard to spot.

The state's goal is to completely eradicate the snails -- which so far have been contained to certain pockets of Miami-Dade county. Feiber said that her team has recently started using a stronger snail bait formulated with metaldehyde and that it seems to be more effective than the iron phosphate they had been using before.

(Weird note: The iron prosphate causes the snails to shrivel up and die, the metaldehyde causes them to ooze and die.)

Also, the rainy season is coming up, which should drive the underground snails from their homes, making them easier for trained county workers to capture and poison.

The state of Florida has a long history of battling invasive species -- including the Burmese python and the beautiful but deadly lionfish. The state has even battled a giant African land snail infestation before, and won.

Back in 1966, the snails showed up in Florida after a boy smuggled a few from Hawaii to keep as pets. His grandmother released them into her garden, where they multiplied rapidly. It took nine years and $1 million in 1960s dollars for the state to get rid of the snails. 

When I asked Feiber why she thinks her team can get rid of this much larger snail problem, she had her answer ready: "Persistence!" she said. "We need to continue to go after it every single day." 

[For the Record, 9:48 a.m., April 16: An earlier version of this story misidentified the snail bait iron phosphate. It has been fixed.]

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