Rat-sized snails invade Cuba, threatening to wipe out indigenous snail population

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Hoards of invasive, giant snails have made their way to the shores of Cuba – gobbling up greenery and leaving the native snail population to die in their wake.

The African land snail, which can grow to the size of a rat and are considered among the worst invasive species in the world, were found for the first time in Cuba last summer and pose a major threat to the island’s other molluscs.

There are many native snails that only exist in Cuba and the introduction of the invasive African land snail – a species in which one snail can lay 100 to 300 eggs per month – severely limits the food available to other snails.

"The probability of these eggs hatching is 95 percent so the species could eventually cover the whole island," Antonio Vazquez of the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Havana, Cuba told the BBC about the African land snail.

Researchers are unsure when and how these sluggish squatters made their way to Cuba, but they are expected to flourish on the island given their uncanny ability to adapt to whatever ecosystem they encounter. Pockets of African land snails have already appeared in Brazil and Venezuela.

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The snail was first introduced in the U.S. in 1966, when a Miami boy smuggled three giant African land snails into the country, which his grandmother eventually released into a garden. After seven years, there were more than 18,000 of them and it took the Florida state eradication effort 10 years to the tune of $1 million to get the snail population under control.

"They're huge, they move around, they look like they're looking at you ... communicating with you, and people enjoy them for that," Denise Feiber, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told Reuters. "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."

Cuba is also struggling with how deal with these snails as a molluscicide could wipe out the entire indigenous snail population on the island.

Vazquez suggested that a population-control measure must be implemented to prevent the African land snail from spreading too far. He also added that humans should avoid these critters and not keep them as pets because the African land snail is known to carry the rat lungworm parasite, which can cause a form of meningitis.

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