Invasive snails that already cost FL $24 million are loose again as illegal pet trade continues

By: - July 7, 2022 5:34 pm

On July 7, 2022, in New Port Richey, FL Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried says giant African land snails are back, brought in illegally as pets. Two eradications since the late ’60s removed nearly 200,000 similar snails, costing the state $24 million but sparing costly crop losses. At Fried’s left are Dr. Greg Hodges and Bryan Benson, with the Division of Plant Industry, and Sparkey, a pest-sniffing dog, with his handler. Credit: Agriculture Department Facebook Live

Fighting a new infestation of an invasive, crop-damaging snail, Florida agriculture officials on Thursday said they have collected 1,000 of the creatures in just over a week in Pasco County, where they were recently discovered following two years in abeyance.

The cream-colored flesh of this giant African land snail marks it as a 2022 arrival in Florida, unlike gray-fleshed cousins that invaded in prior years. Credit: FL Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS)

It marks the third infestation in Florida, which has spent more than $24 million to rid the state’s yards and croplands of giant African land snails. Like many invasive plants and animals wreaking havoc on Florida’s native species, the giant snails are brought in illegally for sale as pets. 

Dr. Greg Hodges, assistant director of the Division of Plant Industry, joined Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Nikki Fried Thursday in New Port Richey for a briefing intended to alert the public to report all sightings of the creatures, which also pose health hazards to humans and certain animals.

The agriculture department’s GALSBusters poster urges Floridians to report sightings of giant African land snails (GALS). While the poster is designed to grab attention, the hazard posed by the snails to agriculture and health is no joke.

Fried and Hodges warned that the invasive snails feed on 500 species of plants, posing a significant threat to Florida agriculture and the natural environment, and carry a parasite that can cause meningitis. Furthermore, the snails fuel their need for shell-hardening calcium by feeding on stucco and plaster found in Florida homes.

Some pet, said Hodges, explaining that while giant snails and other invasive species such as iguanas and pythons have their appeal, they are illegal for good reason.

“People like unusual things. What I would tell anybody is, please research anything you’re looking to purchase as a pet, and make sure it is legal and safe to have,” Hodges said.

The state’s first campaign to eradicate these snails began in the late 1960s and lasted seven years, Hodges said. The second ran from 2010 to 2020.

Fried and Hodges said that 30 personnel with the Division of Plant Industry, within Fried’s Department of Agriculture, are in Pasco County hunting down and digging up the snails, with the help of three dogs specially trained to search for them. Residents who spot unfamiliar snails should not touch them but alert officials at 1-888-397-1517, they said. 

Another view of the invasive snail being hunted in Pasco County. Credit: FDACS

To prevent further spread, residents in Pasco and neighboring areas should not transport soil, yard debris, or potted plants in which the snails or their eggs may be concealed.

The long list of unwanted species flourishing in Florida and damaging its native species include Burmese pythons, former pets that grow to enormous size and proliferate in the Florida Everglades; an Asian beetle devastating orange groves by infecting them with citrus greening; and iguanas, which can damage infrastructure by burrowing under it and, famously, fall unconscious from trees during cold snaps in south Florida.

Information on non-native species and how to surrender a creature that is illegal to possess in Florida is available through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at this site.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.