Florida is trying to catch invasive snails with the help of sniffer dogs

That giant African land snaila potential human health risk, has once again invaded Florida — and officials are using specially trained dogs to sniff out the invasive species.

The Florida Department of Agriculture has called the giant African snail “one of the most noxious” mollusc subspecies in the world. Its unusually large size and ability to reproduce in large numbers allows the creature to quickly infiltrate surrounding areas, posing a threat to vegetation and infrastructure due to its appetite for at least 500 different plants paint and stucco.

“We’re concerned that it’s occurring in our environment,” Jason Stanley, a biologist with the Florida Department of Agriculture, told AFP.

Since June 23, his agency’s agents have been combing the gardens of New Port Richey, a small town on Florida’s west coast where the invasive species has taken root.

A single giant African snail can lay up to 2,000 eggs each year, Stanley explains, which — coupled with its appetite — could spell disaster for the state’s robust agricultural industry.

On a grassy lot in New Port Richey, Mellon, a yellow Lab trained to sniff out snails, walks his handler.

Lorenna Dewitz, a Florida Department of Agriculture worker, treats a trained Mellon dog as he sniffs and searches for the giant African snails July 21, 2022 in New Port Richey, Florida.

CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

He dashes under a tree and sniffs around in the grass. When Mellon finally finds a snail, he sits right on it like he was taught to.

Florida authorities believe the snail, native to East Africa, was reintroduced to the state when someone brought it home as a pet.

Unlike other brown colored giant snails, this particular breed has white flesh.

“These white phenotypes are very popular in the pet trade,” noted Stanley.

Through the talents of Mellon and another snail-sniffing dog, more than 1,000 giant African snails have been caught in Pasco County, where New Port Richey is located.

Authorities are also trying to eradicate the giant slugs by applying metaldehyde, a pesticide the state says is harmless to humans and animals.

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A giant African land snail.

Florida Department of Agriculture Division of Plant Industry

The Florida Department of Agriculture has established a quarantine zone in New Port Richey: No plants or other vegetation may be removed from the area to try to prevent the slugs from spreading further.

“Another problem with this snail is that it carries rat lungworm, which can cause meningitis in humans,” Stanley added.

This species of parasite, discovered among snails caught in Pasco County, enters the rats’ lungs when they eat the snails and then spreads when the rodents cough.

When a human ingests one of the worms, Stanley says, it usually travels to the brainstem, where it can cause meningitis.

Local resident Jay Pasqua still can’t believe the commotion caused by the giant African snail.

In late June, an official from the Department of Agriculture came to his lawn mower sales and repair shop in New Port Richey to alert about the presence of the invasive species.

“It was kind of funny at first to see all the attention a snail gets,” the 64-year-old told AFP.

“But (after) they started to understand the process of their growth, how they got here and what diseases and what problems they cause, it became a problem at that time.”

He’s since found dozens of the pests in his yard, though he says he hasn’t seen any in three days.

The snails are mobile – experts warn they “cling to vehicles and machinery” as well as garbage to “travel long distances” – and resilient, with the ability to survive for a year while “dormant” and in the soil are buried to protect themselves from inclement weather.

The African giant snail has been eradicated twice in other parts of Florida, first in 1975 and then again in 2021.

The latter extermination campaign took place in Miami-Dade County and was the result of 10 years of effort and cost $23 million.

Stanley says he’s optimistic this time will be a lot easier.

“So far it is isolated in one area and we are already investigating and treating that area. So we’re very confident that it won’t take that long here.”

Emily Mae Czachor contributed to this report.

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