Florida has a new problem: Giant African land snails. The snails, which can grow as large as rats, were first discovered in South Florida by a homeowner in 2011, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture. Since then over 117,000 have been found and more than a thousand more are caught each week.
Denise Feiber, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, told NBC News that, despite their apparently friendly appearance, the mollusks pose a danger to various plants and homes in the region.
"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."
Feiber noted that the snails eat over 500 species of plants, or "pretty much anything that's in their path and green," as well as stucco and plaster. In seven weeks, even more of the snails – each female can produce 1,200 eggs a year — will emerge from the ground after Florida's rainy season ends. In some Caribbean countries, enough snails emerge that roads, lawns, and homes become covered with the creatures, resulting in damages to car tires and lawnmower blades, not to mention the slime and shit stains on building walls. "It becomes a slick mess," Feiber said.
But where did they come from? Some experts suspect it began with a Miami-based Santeria group that was found using the snails in a religious ceremony in 2010. But others have a far more concerning, and stomach-churning, theory.
"If you got a ham sandwich in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic, or an orange, and you didn't eat it all and you bring it back into the States and then you discard it, at some point, things can emerge from those products," Feiber said.
And if all that's not disconcerting enough, there's this, too:
The snails also carry a parasitic rat lungworm that can cause illness in humans, including a form of meningitis, Feiber said, although no such cases have yet been identified in the United States.