Five days a week, teams of Florida agriculture inspectors are racing to contain a slow-speed invasion.
"They'll eat anything," said Juan Suarez, a member of one of the crews tracking a ravenous foreign snail. "I think of it as a hunt."
Giant African Land Snails, which can grow to eight inches long and are known to carry a parasite causing meningitis in humans, have infested a portion of Miami-Dade County. Agriculture officials say the invasive snails pose a serious risk to agriculture—especially exports.
"There are huge trade implications," said Trevor Smith, Ph.D., chief of the state bureau working to evict the Giant African Land Snail.
The snail's large multicolored shell is picturesque, yet it poses a potential threat for homeowners. Smith said the nocturnal mollusks require large amounts of calcium. And they are believed to be eating concrete to satisfy that hunger.
"It can actually eat stucco off the wall of your house," he said. "They do tend to congregate at the footer. And we suspect they're down there feeding on the concrete."
There is no way to know for sure, but scientists believe the Giant African Land Snail was introduced to Florida when an uniformed resident brought one home as a souvenir or a pet.
And so, each business day, caravans of agriculture inspectors fan out across the county in hopes of stopping the snail before it spreads.
"We're on it," said crew leader Dexavier Smith. "And we're making a difference."
The threat is particularly profound since the Giant African Land Snail possesses the unique ability to reproduce on its own.
"It has both male and female parts," said Katrina Dickens, a University of Florida researcher who runs a lab that is chock full of Giant African Land Snails.
Dickens showed us clusters of eggs – hundreds of them – that the snails lay simultaneously. She monitors their daily routine in hopes of figuring out what makes them tick.
"A lot is not known about the snail," Dickens said.
What is known is their speed-- despite snails' lethargic reputation.
"All slugs and snails can move pretty fast," said John Capinera, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of Florida. "...when they want to."
If left to its own devices, Smith warned that this voracious snail might pose a risk far beyond Miami: "All across the south, through Texas, and Arizona and New Mexico, and up the Pacific coast into Oregon."
Progress is being made in stopping it.
Even Suarez, who erects "wanted" posters in Miami-Dade neighborhoods and digs holes to search for the snails five days a week, sees improvement.
"Gradually, we're getting it under control," he said.
FL. AGRICULTURE DEPARTMENT PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64eCuzQPSqQ