As if South Florida wasn't afflicted enough, with its house- and people-swallowing sinkholes, and the Burmese pythons that slithered into the Everglades a decade ago and overran the place, now it has a new, weirder problem—squirrel-sized snails that seem to eat anything and everything.
A local homeowner first spotted the giant African land snail, an invasive species, in September 2011, according to Denise Feiber, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service. Since then, its numbers have swelled to nearly unmanageable proportions, with local officials catching more than 1,000 of them a week in the Miami-Dade region, adding up to a total of 117,000.
Though the slimy creatures are known to eat more than 500 plant species, the biggest concern is that these mollusks munch on stucco—a popular building material in Florida that provides land snails the calcium they need to nurture their armor-like shells. Their shells are so dense and hard, in fact, that they've been known to pop tires on freeways.
Beyond their Godzilla-like, building-eating tendencies, officials are worried about the snails' high reproduction rate—they each produce nearly 1,200 eggs annually—and that it carries a parasitic rat lungworm that can manifest in humans as a form of meningitis. According to Feiber, no cases have yet been reported in the United States.
Working with investigators, Feiber said one possible source for the infestation may be a Miami-area Santeria organization, a West African and Caribbean religion that uses the snails in rituals. However, given the subtropical climate's history of nurturing destructive alien species, and the throngs of tourists who visit each year and carry unknown exotic species in their baggage, it's hard to pinpoint the snails' origin.
“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,” Feiber said.
The last giant African land snail invasion happened in 1966, when a boy brought them back to Miami from a vacation in Hawaii. His grandmother released them into her garden and, seven years later, the three had become 17,000. It took the state 10 years, and cost $1 million, to eradicate them.
If they're not stopped this time, authorities are worried the African land snails could decimate Florida's lucrative agriculture.