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Invasive snail species could cause more harm than just eating plants

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The giant African land snail, which could give people who touch it meningitis, may slide out of Florida if a program to exterminate it goes well.

The Giant African Land Snail Eradication Program is led by the Division of Plant Industry in Gainesville, a part of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumerism.

Snail experts gathered at a symposium Wednesday to discuss the program, which began in September 2011. Since then, more than 116,000 snails have been collected.

Denise Feiber, spokeswoman for the Division of Plant Industry, said the experts were gathered so they could evaluate the program and see if it would actually be successful.

“The giant African land snail is one of the most wanted, top invaders invasive species in the world,” Feiber said.

Feiber said so far, the division has learned it is doing a good job in eradicating the snail. The group is hoping to learn what it can do better, such as better bait or methods of trapping.

The snails, which eat stucco off houses to help build their shell, can carry a parasite that causes meningitis in humans, she said.

The parasite is called rat lungworm and is often found in the snail. Feiber said it can get into a human’s system if a person handles the snail, gets any mucus on his or her hands and then touches his or her mouth or nose.

Feiber said so far there are no reported cases of meningitis in Florida caused by the snail. Still, there are cases in other countries.

The snail attacks more than 500 different species of plants, she said, which can be detrimental to the nursery and plant industry. It also eats stucco off homes and leaves behind its slime, causing it to me a nuisance.

The snails were found when a homeowner approached one of the division’s plant inspectors with the snail. It was sent to division’s lab in Gainesville and confirmed to be a giant African land snail.

So far, the giant African land snail has only been found in Miami-Dade county.

Feiber said the snails can grow up to eight inches long and can live up to nine years. They have the ability to lay up to 1,200 eggs a year. Because they have no natural predators here, their population can increase rapidly.

Feiber said she is unsure how the snails got into Florida, but like many other non-native pests, it is possibly they hitched a ride on luggage coming from other countries.

To collect snails, the program baits them. Collected snails are frozen and killed to be studied. The program will continue until the land snail is completely eradicated. To declare eradication, the federal government requires that a snail has not been found for two years.

The giant African land snail has brown and black horizontal stripes. The public is encouraged to call the Division of Plant Industry’s helpline at 888-397-1517 if they see a giant African land snail.

Homeowners should not touch the snail, unless they are wearing gloves. Feiber said if someone does want to collect a sample, they should put it in at least two ziplock bags and call the helpline.

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