In the 1960’s a boy vacationing with his family in Hawaii had pocketed a few giant African land snails (Lissachatina fulica), a mollusk that grows to a foot long and a full pound. Hawaii had been battling the pest, and so too would Florida, where the boy returned with his new friends. Once home, he quickly grew bored of the snails and handed them over to his grandmother, who set them free in her backyard.
But what about the ‘sex-crazed’ part of the story?
You see, the giant African land snail is a hermaphroditic love machine. “Snails have female bits and male bits,” explained biologist Robert Cowie of the University of Hawaii, “a single pore, through which if you’re acting as a male, a penis extrudes, or if you’re acting as a female, through which the other snail puts its penis in. And in some cases they can do it reciprocally.”
Thus the giant snail never meets another snail it can’t get busy with. Once fertilized, the snail will bury several hundred eggs a few inches below ground, and because of the incredible size of the species, the young will emerge far larger than native varieties, making them that much more resistant to predation.
Today, Miami is simply overrun with the things. Not only do the giant snails chow on some 500 economically important plants in the area, they’re devouring houses. It seems they have a taste for stucco, which contains precious calcium. Without a ready supply of the stuff to fuel their amazing growth, they’ll simply turn on each other — at least in captivity.
Cowie knows all too well the explosive population growth these things are capable of when left unchecked. In Hawaii, where he lives, the giant African land snail was introduced in the 1930s by Japanese immigrants who wanted to keep them as pets. They have since essentially assumed ecological control, tearing through agriculture and muscling out native species.
Speaking of agriculture, all manner of critters could very easily end up in your Caesar salad, for instance, since cooks don’t always peel apart the lettuce before chopping it. “And it could just as well be a little baby African snail,” said Cowie. “OK, it’s a bit crunchy, but so is the lettuce a bit crunchy, and you’d never know. So that’s the way people generally get infected in places where they don’t habitually eat raw snails.”
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