Giant African Land Snail eats stucco, spreads disease, kills produce

TAMPA BAY - On the side of streets across Tampa Bay, white traps nestle in the trees. One of the men who checks them isn't just looking for the fruit flies they kill.

"We'd be looking for slime trails, especially on a nice sunny day like this, they would glisten," Howard Wallace said. "The smell. When you have a bunch of snails, it's going to smell, and bad."

Wallace wears a Florida Department of Agriculture ID with a reminder on the back: a picture of a large snail next to a ruler.

"We need your help to look for and report this unwanted invader," Florida Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam says in a recently released public service announcement. "Thank you for your cooperation."

The PSA sounds the alarm about the Giant African Land Snail. It's shell alone can grow to a half-foot.

"The snails are so bad in Nigeria, they actually flatten tires on cars on the road, the shells, they're so tough," Wallace explained. "It affects not only agriculture, but our way of life, our health, and our safety."

In just over a year, trappers have caught more than 114,000 snails in southern Florida, thanks to reports from neighbors.

Such reports are the only way to catch and kill the snails before they make it any farther north.

They reproduce quickly and eat almost anything, including farm produce and stucco right off the side of homes.

"In the case of the snail, the trouble is this animal has the capacity to do something other native species can't," explained USF Biology Professor Marty Martin. "We often times really don't know how big of a problem we might be dealing with because the signatures of what could be a big problem don't really show up."

The snail is now the focus of an eradication effort to keep it from taking over Florida, carrying with it rat lung worm, a parasite that transmits meningitis to humans, who also happen to be the number one reason the snail spreads.

"Kids just happen to be playing in the wrong place at the wrong time, picking up a snail, not really knowing what the risk is," Martin said.

It's a lesson Florida learned in the 1960s, when it spent a million dollars fighting the snail after a young boy brought one home from Hawaii.

If you spot a Giant African Land Snail, call the FL Dept of Agriculture at 888-397-1517.

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