A swarm of giant, rat-sized snails has invaded South Florida, causing panic among local authorities.
The African land snail, an enormous mollusk that can grow to be as big as a rat, is being spotted with increasing frequency in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. Since its discovery in 2011, 117,000 snails have been captured, including more than 1,000 with each passing week, Reuters reports. These massive numbers will increase as more of the snails emerge from hibernation over the next several weeks.
Besides its unsightly appearance, the African land snail is destructive to the local environment. They're able to gnaw through plastic and stucco, and consume “over 500 known species of plants … pretty much anything that’s in their path and green,” Denise Feiber, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told Reuters.
The problem is worse in nearby Caribbean nations, such as Barbados. According to Fox News, the snails are known to blow out tires on the highway. The snails are so pervasive that their slime often coats walls and pavements. "It becomes a slick mess," Feiber said.
Land snails can produce around 1,200 eggs per year, allowing the species to rapidly expand its population. The mollusks can cause extensive damage to homes due to their taste for stucco, which they ingest for its calcium content, Fox News reports.
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The pests are also known to carry disease. According to Feiber, the snails often carry parasites that can cause sickness in humans, including a type of meningitis. She added that the illness has yet to manifest in the United States.
Last week, experts gathered for a “Giant African Land Snail Science Symposium,” where they attempted to develop a strategy to curtail the species. The experts discussed effective extermination techniques, such as the use of a new type of bait that was recently approved by the government, Fox News reports.
In an attempt to educate the public about the infestation, Florida authorities have released a series of videos, billboards, and other advertisements.
"They're huge, they move around, they look like they're looking at you ... communicating with you, and people enjoy them for that," Feiber said. "But they don't realize the devastation they can create if they are released into the environment where they don't have any natural enemies and they thrive."