South Floridians can add the Giant African Land Snail to the growing list of exotic creatures that just aren’t supposed to be in their midst.
Since their initial detection by two Coral Gables sisters in early September, upward of 23,000 snails have been found in nine different areas of Miami-Dade County.
The snails are widely distributed in the county, ranging as far north as Hialeah, as far west as The Hammocks and as far south as Cutler Ridge.
The snails can grow to be 10 inches long and 4 inches wide. They can consume more than 500 different species of plants, but will eat just about anything else they can get their shells on.
The sizable mollusks can also carry a strain of non-fatal meningitis, and despite their reputation for being slowpokes, they are anything but sluggish procreators, each laying up to 1,200 eggs per year and living as long as nine years.
The snails are hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female genitalia.
Mark Fagan, public information officer for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, has been working to locate and eradicate the pests.
Fagan is part of the agency’s incident command, a system that provides a management structure and emergency federal funds when appropriate situations arise.
In the late 1990s, a similar incident command was triggered to deal with the citrus canker outbreak in Florida.
Fagan and a team of about 70 local, state and federal officials operate a call center to handle citizens reporting sightings, which then are investigated by field teams.
“I’d say on average we get 10 to 15 calls per day, but it really depends on what the weather is and how much media coverage we may have received that day,” Fagan said.
The snails are predominantly nocturnal creatures attracted to cool and humid areas such as in potted plants or near rocks.
Fagan said that on Oct. 8, a rainy day, the center fielded up to 40 calls.
He said as many as 500 snails have been found on a single property and that the pests could wreak havoc on the agricultural sector should they reach it. Miami-Dade farms provide much of the nation’s October through December fruit and vegetable supply.
This is not the first time Miami has had a giant snail problem. In 1966, a boy brought three from Hawaii to Miami. The population ballooned to 18,000 after the snails were released by the boy’s grandmother into the garden.
It took a decade and $1 million (more than $5.5 million today, adjusted for inflation) for authorities to eradicate the snails.
“Just imagine, it took them 10 years to find 18,000 snails,’ Fagan said. “It took us just three weeks to reach that number.”
Last year, The Miami Herald famously reported on the case of Charles L. Stewart, a Hialeah man who smuggled the snails into the U.S. for use in Santeria healing rituals.
The jig was up after several practitioners had to be hospitalized after ingesting snail mucus. A criminal investigation was launched, though no charges have been filed.
The species is no stranger to new environments. Originally from East Africa, it can now be found in Asia, the Pacific and Indian Ocean islands, and the West Indies.
Such prolificacy has landed Achatina fulica at the No. 4 spot on the Global Invasive Species Database’s list of the World’s 100 Worst Invasive Species.
According to the journal Neglected Tropical Diseases, A. fulica was one of the species of snail responsible for an outbreak of the rat lungworm in mainland China in 2006, inflicting 160 people.
In 2008, a snail measuring more than 6.5 inches turned one villager’s home into a tourist attraction in Hainan province, in southern China.
Tests are currently underway to determine if any of the snails caught in Miami-Dade County are infected with rat lungworm, which can cause Eosinophilic meningitis in humans.
Like most other invasive species, however, the threat to humans is relatively minimal while the threat to the local ecology is more significant.
Kristara Pedroso lives with her parents in The Hammocks, location of the fourth-identified core of snail infestation. She says she has noticed the snails in her backyard for three to four years now.
“They really didn’t bother me at first,” Pedroso said. “They would just come out at night and when it rained.”
Pedroso, 23, took an interest in the goliath gastropods.
“I would do experiments with them like leaving flyers on the floor and they would just devour them,” Pedroso said. “Then I’d see the paper in the snail poop, it was kind of weird.”
The snails will eat anything with calcium in order to grow their shells. This often includes the plaster and stucco off walls, though Pedroso says there has been no such damage to her house.
She was so fond of them that when the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services came knocking in the past few weeks, Pedroso told them that she did not want the snails harmed.
Pedroso’s mother, however, has not taken so kindly to the unwanted guests.
Lourdes Hernandez went as far as setting bait for the snails, only to find that the species was seemingly immune to her over-the-counter brand.
While Hernandez says there has been no damage to the home, her landscaping and garden have been seriously affected.
“I had a hedge right in front of the house and they destroyed that,” Hernandez said. “They destroyed some plants and a mango tree I had in the back, they were really attacking that.”
Hernandez describes the health of the affected plants as “poor — the ones that did survive.”
She says a neighbor that has since moved brought the snails from Peru years ago to use the mucus as an anti-wrinkle treatment.
Hernandez is happy to be seeing fewer snails since officials have been out surveying the area.
“Mostly every day, I’ve seen five to six trucks and at least 20 people rounding them up in buckets with gloves, and some kind of gadget to pick them up with,” Hernandez said.
So far, officials have been removing the snails by hand, but will soon begin using the snail bait Sluggo to rid properties of the pests.
“It’s a pellet-sized bait that has an active ingredient called iron phosphate,” says Denise Feiber, of the DACS Division of Plant Industries. “It’s an over-the-counter product that is safe for pets and other animals; it’s just toxic to snails.”
Feiber encourages homeowners to apply Sluggo, available at most hardware stores, themselves but to wear gloves when handling the snails.
She also says there is an ongoing investigation into the snail’s use in healing rituals and the Santeria community’s involvement in the snails’ importation.
“We are trying outreach to the Santeria community to understand their religious practices better,” Feiber said. “We do understand that snails may be used in the rituals, but many of the practitioners we’ve spoken to say they do not support the use of the snails.”
To report snails on your property, call the hotline at (888) 397-1517.