— Florida is used to strange creatures, but the discovery of a non-native animal — a giant snail from East Africa — has got local officials really worried.
A search-and-destroy advisory that went out included this bit of history: the last time the giant snails were found in Florida (back in 1966) they had multiplied from three to 18,000 in seven years and cost $1 million to eradicate.
The new population of giant African land snails was found in Miami-Dade County, and several dozen technicians were quickly dispatched to search them out.
About 1,000 were found Thursday within a one-square-mile radius, the Miami Herald reported. Several hundred were found in one backyard in Coral Gables. How they got there was not immediately known.
The snails were sent to freezers to be frozen to death.
Why worry? Besides their intimidating size — up to 8 inches long and 4 inches in diameter — "they consume at least 500 different types of plants, can cause structural damage to plaster and stucco, and can carry a parasitic nematode that can lead to meningitis in humans," the Florida Department of Agriculture said in a statement Thursday.
They also breed like crazy. "Each snail can live as long as nine years and contains both female and male reproductive organs," the department stated. "After a single mating session, each snail can produce 100 to 400 eggs. In a typical year, every mated adult lays about 1,200 eggs."
The 1966 incident was tied to a boy who brought three into Miami as pets. His grandmother later released them into her garden, starting a plague that took 10 years to eradicate.
In the new outbreak, officials are looking into a possible connection to a criminal investigation, the Miami Herald reported. A man is accused of smuggling in the snails for a religious practice in which followers would drink the snails' juices for a healing ritual. Several people became violently ill.
The man allegedly was helped by a woman said to have hid the snails under her dresses on flights to Miami.
It is illegal to import the snails into the United States. Smugglers can face up to a $1,000 fine per charge.
In 2004, federal officials seized several giant African land snails that had been used in Wisconsin schoolrooms.
A University of Florida study published Thursday found that Florida has more non-native amphibians and reptiles than anywhere else in the world, and that the pet trade is the main cause.
The most notorious of Florida's invasives is the Burmese python. The state last year banned owning Burmese pythons and other large snakes after one killed a two-year-old child in her home.