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Home / Articles / News / Strange News /  Florida targets Giant African snails
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Thursday, March 11,2010

Florida targets Giant African snails

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

ORLANDO, Fla. — They're not as menacing as Burmese pythons, but Giant African snails are now in the same class as the large snakes — targets of the government.

The invasive mollusks are considered a major plant pest and a potential public health threat. And now federal and state authorities are seeking to prevent the large, slimy, shell-toting snails from re-establishing themselves in Florida.

Once established, agricultural officials said, the mollusks "can create a giant swath of destruction."

"The idea is that these are prolific breeders," Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesman Mark Fagan said. "Our primary concern is the potential harm it can do to agricultural crops, as well as (public) health concerns."

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have teamed up to spearhead the mollusk prevention effort.

Known as Achatina fulica, the species is one of the world's largest land snails. They can grow to be 8 inches long and 4.5 inches in diameter.

In addition to destroying plants and damaging ornamental plants, they are a potential health risk because they spread disease, officials said.

It is illegal to import the snails into the United States without a permit.

The snail has not been an issue in Florida for several decades. In 1966, a child smuggled three snails into the Miami area as pets. They were later released into a garden by his grandmother. And by 1973, their population had grown to more than 18,000 snails, officials said.

Over the next decade, government officials spent more than $1 million to eradicate them. That effort is considered the only successful Giant African snail eradication on record, government officials say.

Scientists say the snails consume at least 500 kinds of plants, including citrus crops, Fagan said.

They can also damage buildings by consuming plaster, stucco and other materials they need to grow their shells. Large numbers of these snails can cause extensive damage.

They also carry parasites and worse: "These snails are known to carry meningitis bacteria, so it's also a health concern," Fagan said.

The snails are identified by seven to nine "whorls" or spirals. They have a brownish shell, covering half the length of their bodies. They live up to nine years and have female and male reproductive organs.

After mating, each snail can produce 100 to 400 eggs. Mated adults lay about 1,200 eggs a year.

The snails originate from East Africa. But government officials say the pest has been introduced into Caribbean islands such as Martinique and Guadeloupe and they've been detected in Saint Lucia and Barbados.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recently stepped up inspection efforts following a "GAS interception," according to a statement. But it has found no additional snails.

Fagan said multiple snails were found in February at one property in Hialeah. A survey was conducted in the area around where the snails were found, and no other snails were located, Fagan said.

Last year, state and federal wildlife officials began a concerted effort to prevent the spread of python species in and around the Everglades because those invasive reptiles prey on native species. Those efforts permitted hunting of the pythons.

Fagan said it is difficult to compare the two threats. "The snakes pose a completely different threat to nature," he said. "I don't think you can compare the two."

As for the snails, government officials are concerned about the damage they can do to plant life, people and even the structures in which they live.

"Absolutely there's an urgent need to make sure these have not gotten out into neighborhoods," Fagan said.

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(c) 2010, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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