How often do we actually give snails any thought? They are usually looked at as slimy, harmless creatures who slowly crawl across our sidewalks and nosh on our plants. But that’s all there is to them, right?
Wrong. You see, not all snails are so innocent. A group of people in Florida learned this the hard way when hundreds of thousands of baseball-sized snails invaded their city! After experiencing such an ‘attack’, some people can never look at these gastropods the same way again.
In 2013, an outbreak of Giant African Land Snails, or Achatina fulica, erupted in south Florida near Miami. Despite their geographically specific name, they can be found in Asia, The Pacific, and The Caribbean as well. So how did they get all the way to Florida?
This isn’t the snails’ first Florida vacation. In the 1960’s they were brought in from Hawaii when a boy smuggled three of them home as pets. The boy’s grandmother released the snails into her garden, which led to a 10-year, million dollar disaster!
As their name states, the Giant African Land Snail can grow quite big in size. They reach adult adulthood at 6 months, and although their growth does slow down at that point, they just keep getting bigger for the rest of their life — which is 5-6 years.
These snails don’t just love Florida for its lovely beaches, retirement homes, and plastic pink flamingos. They also love the climate and the vegetation. The GALS thrive in warm, humid weather, but they bring with them a problem…
These bad boys can (and will) eat nearly everything. They have been caught stealing cucumbers, lettuce, snap peas, broccoli, and even certain fruits like strawberries. We’re not talking just a bite or two, either…
These snails have eaten their way through more than 500 kinds of plants and flowers, much to the dismay of Floridians who take pride in their yards and don’t want neighbors eyeing their half-eaten palm trees. But the snails don’t stop there.
One of the most surprising things a Giant African Land Snail will nibble on is the stucco on the outside of a house. This won’t destabilize the walls, but it’s certainly not a good look. How does one eat a wall, you may wonder?
The reason these snails can eat whatever they want is due to the unique shape of their mouth. They contain a structure similar to a tongue called the radula. It has small teeth that allow snails to scrape the food before eating it. Gross!
The snail has also broken the gender binary by having both female and male reproductive organs. They can mate together or by themselves. This is another reason these snails can barely be stopped. These GALS don’t need a man!
They may be our enemies but apparently, the giant snails are quite affectionate when they want to be: they can produce up to 12,000 eggs per year. That’s a lot of kids!
Aside from a few pet snails in terrariums, snail parents don’t usually look after their young (12,000 children is a lot of responsibility). Still, the hatch rates for the eggs is roughly 90%, so even without tender loving care, these babies quickly become serious pests.
When an infestation occurs, the Giant African Land Snail can be found at all times of the day, but they are most active at night and after heavy rainfall. Those who are unfortunate enough to live among them can sometimes see hundreds of them at once in their yard.
Cruel as it may be, the Department of Agriculture needs to protect Florida’s crops and often set out to find and destroy thousands of these snails. They search any yard where the snails have been sighted, collecting specimens on the way.
A lot of research is done on these big boys, not just to help prevent future invasions, but also because of the fascination that these snails can survive nearly everything.
These GALS may be survivors, but that doesn’t make them safe to handle. While they do not sting or bite, these snails have been shown to carry a serious parasite, which could cause meningitis and other diseases in humans.
Scary parasites aren’t the only way the snail protects itself, though. Thanks to its hard shell, it is impossible for other animals to consume. Excusez moi, French people, but these snails are definitely NOT made to serve as dinner.
Although it is illegal in the United States to keep these babies as pets, collectors of exotic animals from other countries have adopted these snails as their buddies. You can get them in the U.K., Brazil, China, and Nigeria.
The reason Americans are not allowed to own most snail species is because even one pet can start an infestation, especially because their only natural predators are… well, us, and we don’t want to battle tons of snails every year.
The tale of the snail is a sad one. After all, they mean no harm, and only destroy everything we love to be able to feed their families. Still, we must protect our crops (and ourselves) from tiny tongues and parasites, so the GALS have got to go.
Five years after the start of the most recent outbreak, the giant snail problem is finally under control, as most of the previously quarantined areas have been declared a GALS-free zone. Another future invasion is not entirely out of the question, but for now, the animal control services totally (s)nailed it.
If you ever come across a snail the size of your face, please don’t hurt it, but do alert your local authorities. If you live in a place where you can legally keep them as pets, whatever you do, don’t set them out in the yard.
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