WTF: Foot-Long, Sex-Crazed Snails That Pierce Tires and Devour Houses (Wired)
This actually happened in the 1960s, when a boy vacationing with his family in Hawaii had pocketed a fewgiant African land snails (Lissachatina fulica), a mollusk that grows to a foot long and a full pound. Hawaii had been battling the pest, and so too would Florida, where the boy returned with his new friends. Once home, he quickly grew bored of the snails and handed them over to his grandmother, who set them free in her backyard.
What ensued was an invasion by rapidly reproducing critters that have over the last century spread out of their native East Africa into tropical climes all over the world, from Asia to South America, as stowaways on ships or as pets brought home by people with a thing for snails. In Florida, eradication took seven years. Other places, like Brazil, have not been so lucky in their efforts.
You see, the giant African land snail is a hermaphroditic love machine. “Snails have female bits and male bits,” explained biologist Robert Cowie of the University of Hawaii, “a single pore, through which if you’re acting as a male, a penis extrudes, or if you’re acting as a female, through which the other snail puts its penis in. And in some cases they can do it reciprocally.”
Thus the giant snail never meets another snail it can’t get busy with. Once fertilized, the snail will bury several hundred eggs a few inches below ground, and because of the incredible size of the species, the young will emerge far larger than native varieties, making them that much more resistant to predation.
As these eggs demonstrate, cash rules everything around the giant snails from a very early age. Image: Wikimedia
Alas, four decades after evicting this enormous, fecund snail, Florida finds itself overrun once again. The creature was reintroduced here in 2011, and this time, according to Cowie, it may well be “bizarre, voodoo-like religious proceedings” to blame. The snail’s slime, he says, is coveted in certain South American rituals, and practitioners may have released the giant snails into their Miami-area backyards, hoping they’d breed freely.
The USDA and U.S. District Attorney’s Office are investigating this. It probably doesn’t help the ritualists’ case, though, that the year before the current outbreak, authorities questioned a Florida man said to have convinced his followers to drink the fluid from live giant African land snails, which he sliced open before squeezing the slime into their mouths. If you can believe it, the victims fell violently ill — ironic, what with this being a healing ritual.
Anyway, if it was indeed the practitioners who released the snails so they (the snails, not the practitioners) could multiply rapidly, it worked. Big time. Florida agriculture officials have collected 137,000 giant snails in just over two years. Compare that to the relatively few 17,000 collected in the first eradication in the 1960s, and you soon see the magnitude of this problem.
Today, Miami is simply overrun with the things. Not only do the giant snails chow on some 500 economically important plants in the area, they’re devouring houses. It seems they have a taste for stucco, which contains precious calcium. Without a ready supply of the stuff to fuel their amazing growth, they’ll simply turn on each other — at least in captivity.
You may be getting the impression that the giant snail’s natural habitat is the human hand. It is. Image: fiddledydee/Flickr
“A long time ago I had some African snails in the lab, in an aquarium-type tank,” said Cowie, “and apparently I wasn’t providing a sufficient source of calcium, and they would just eat each other’s shells. These snails produce big shells, they need a lot of calcium, and a lot of people these days when they keep snails they’ll put a bit of cattle bone in the terrarium for the snails to chew on, just to get the calcium.”