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Written by Wendy Doscher-Smith -- BT Contributor   
June 2013

Giant African snails are coming to eat us out of house and home!

IPix_WendyD-S_6-13f you ever hear about an occurrence that sounds like the plot of a science-fiction film (or horror, lest we forget the “zombie” face-eating incident), no matter if it involves people or animals, you can rest assured it is happening in South Florida -- or more specifically, Miami.

Sure enough, as this summer sizzles to a start, the 305 is not going to disappoint. We have a brand-new (sort of) eco-security threat, and can start a new chapter in the Unwanted Animals of the Tropics novel. Move over, snakes! See ya later, alligator! It’s time for something… well, not meatier, but definitely slimier.

Bienvenidos a Miami, giant African land snails! Yes, whether you know it or not, Miami-Dade County is currently under attack. I’m talking Code Red here. These snails mean business. And what these fierce specimens lack in speed, they more than make up for in chutzpah as long as football fields.

Here’s why. Are you familiar with the term “Eat you out of house and home”? Perhaps you even have personal experience with this particular phenomenon, like 30-year-old, college-educated children who can’t seem to leave the nest?

Well, the giant African snail, also known as the Ghana tiger snail, eats like a star quarterback. Who just escaped from a drought-affected island. On the moon. Translation: These creatures are hungry. They are native to Africa, where they are often on the menu. Now they are ready to take revenge. And they pay no mind to the dietary trends preached by dieticians plaguing America. They don’t have to. They are vegan by nature.

To the giant African snail, Miami must appear as one friendly mollusk mansion. Except we’re not so friendly. Reason being, these snails are a huge threat to crops.

All of our crops. Turns out, they not only have a voracious appetite, but they don’t discriminate. These are creatures that have never heard the word “diet.” They eat everything. Well, not everything. They don’t hunt people, but unlike your kids, they’ll eat your house. Hey, some animals like flesh; these guys prefer stucco and plaster.

They scarf down 500-plus plant varieties, including peanuts, beans, peas, cucumbers, and melons. No fresh fruit available? No problem. Tasty tree bark and ornamental plants work, too. These snails not only defy the traditional view of mollusks as lazy, they slime in the face of such accusations. Make no mistake: This snail is one industrious animal.

This is the second South Florida go ’round for the giant African snail, which was first found here in the late 1960s, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

The monster-size mollusk can grow as large as your foot (if you wear a size 8 women’s shoe). They can reach five inches in diameter, or the size of an average adult’s fist. And they reproduce like rabbits. Only more so. Rabbits can get pregnant on the same day they give birth, mate with their siblings and parents, and be pregnant with two litters simultaneously. One giant snail can produce 1200 eggs in one year. They are proud hermaphrodites. Some even wear tiny T-shirts that read “Double Your Pleasure.” (I’m kidding.)

The snail’s tongue, called a radula, is used, along with rows of tiny teeth, to chomp, chomp, chomp and consume food at night. They are nocturnal. Like vampires. Only not. (Vampire snails. No reports of those yet. However, I’m confident they will first be spotted here, as they crawl out from the dark confines of their shell coffins.)

Unlike Dracula, giant African snails have limited senses. The poor things can barely see, and are deaf. (They rely instead on a keen sense of smell.) This may be a blessing for them, though, as they are noisy nom-nomers. This is, after all, what one might expect from chowing down on Miami’s McMansions. But can you imagine the headaches?

Miami attracts weirdos and freaks. (You know what the Realtors say: “Location, location, location.”) People come here for the hot weather or the hot chicks. Either way, whatever their motives, we don’t kill them off. Not usually on purpose, anyway.

Tourists are also an invasive species who cause harm to our delicate balance of native life with their gawking and road clogging, making driving a curse rather than a privilege. However, unlike other invasive species, they are not forced here against their will.

Florida is ground zero for invasive species. In fact, according to this incredibly scholarly document about “verified non-indigenous amphibians and reptiles in Florida from 1863-2010,” provided to me by South Florida-based wildlife biologist Joe Wasilewski (who is working in the Bahamas to remove invasive reptiles, a process he describes as a “no-win” situation), Florida is the world’s leader in invasive reptile species introduction.

Invasive sounds bad. Like “invaders.” Space Invaders comes to mind. Which leads to aliens. Which leads to eyeball-probing. The thing is, if they could speak, these snails, along with countless other animals, would tell you they were kidnapped. In fact, according to the aforementioned scholarly document, the pet trade industry accounted for the overwhelming majority of invasive species arriving and breeding here. A whopping 84 percent.

The invader snails aren’t as lucky as the invader tourists. Since invasive species are bad for the local ecosystem, we kill them. I understand this is a necessity. That doesn’t mean I like it. I’d hasten to guess the snails do not like it, either. Not that anyone is asking them. Freezing the snails to death is deemed the most humane way to do the deed. Although I’ve gotta say, I’ve been in freezing temperatures -- in a good coat, yet -- and there was nothing humane about it.

This imminent mollusk holocaust angers me. Once again, yet another species (preceding the snails are reptiles, fish, and birds, among others) finds itself victim to stupid and greedy people. These snails were most likely smuggled in by people who wanted to sell them to morons who keep them as pets. Or even by teachers for educational purposes.

Now they will follow in the path of the Burmese python, native to Southeast Asia. Seems snakes slithering up toilet drains to say “hello” during comfy throne moments are not desirable. But despite our best kill efforts, they remain in Miami. Unwelcome guest alligators still splish splash in backyard swimming pools.

It took one decade and $1 million to eradicate the snails the first time they came here. What will it take this time?

 

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