NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. — Invasive giant African land snails that can eat building plaster and stucco, consume hundreds of varieties of plants and carry diseases that affect humans have been detected once again (for the third time) in Florida, where officials said Thursday work has begun to eradicate the pests.
The snails, which grow as long as 8 inches (20 centimeters) and have a distinctive whirled, brown-mottled shell, were confirmed by state agriculture officials in New Port Richey, Florida, on June 23.
Since then, agriculture leaders have found more than 1,000 giant African land snails in Pasco County across 29 different properties.
Florida has twice before eradicated the snails in other parts of the state, most recently a 10-year effort in Miami-Dade County that cost $23 million and ended in 2021 after the collection of about 170,000 snails. Now they are back again, most likely the result of the illegal international exotic pet trade or arriving hidden in cargo from overseas.
“We will eradicate these snails. We've done it before and we will do it again,” said Nikki Fried, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, at a news conference Thursday.
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The snails have been found in numerous parts of the world such as Hawaii and parts of the Caribbean, including in Cuba where an effort is ongoing to rid the island of the pests.
The snails are known to eat 500 different plant types, making them a major threat to agriculture including peanuts, beans, cucumbers, and melons. They will also eat plaster and stucco in buildings, even tree bark, and carry a parasite called the rat lungworm that can cause meningitis in humans, according to the department. They can produce up to 1,200 eggs a year.
“They are one of the most damaging snails in the world,” said Fried, a Democrat who is also running for governor this year.
A quarantine area has been set up in Pasco County where the snails were found, initially by a homeowner. The properties involved will be treated with a molluscicide bait and snails are being collected by state workers aided by dogs trained to sniff them out.
Bryan Benson with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said they have teams of dogs working to sniff boxes to find unauthorized pets, plants, and produce that isn't being brought into the United States. Two dogs have specifically been trained to find the snails by sniffing their scent underground, in plants and shrubs, and other hard-to-see areas.
“Dogs are fascinating creatures. They have the ability to train and maintain the distinct odor for 20 different items," Benson explained. "Snails are good hiders. Dogs are good finders.”
“The minuscule amounts of aroma they can pick up is amazing," added Gregg Farina, one of the canine handlers. His dog, Sparkey, spends his days sniffing boxes, pallets, and trucks at commercial shipping facilities throughout the state. He even works on moving conveyor belts while inspecting packages.
Benson says the dogs are brought in for a final sweep of the impacted properties. They are trained to sit when they see a giant African land snail as opposed to putting it in their mouths, which could risk spreading meningitis to the dogs.
Greg Hodges, assistant director of the state Division of Plant Industry, said it is illegal to import or possess giant African land snails in Florida without a permit. It is also illegal to move them from a quarantined area, such as the one in Pasco County, or to take away other material in the area such as soil, yard waste, compost, or building materials without an agreement with the state.
Hodges said anyone who spots a snail should not touch it but instead call 888-397-1517 to report the find.
Fried said people should definitely shy away from the snails, which are not the type one finds in escargot.
“This is not a snail to put butter or oil and garlic on. This is not something you want to touch. It is not something you want to eat,” Fried said.