When is it good to be out of GAS?

Contact: Gaye L. Williams, Maryland Department of Agriculture | 410-841-5920 | williagl@mda.state.md.us

When is it good to be out of GAS?
Photo: Andrew Derksen, USDA-APHIS, Bugwood.org

ANNAPOLIS, MD (September 17, 2004) – Giant African Snails (GAS), which are illegal in the United States, are appearing in schoolrooms, pet stores and flea markets across the country (really!). While the snails can present some public health concerns, the agricultural and ecological damage they may cause, based on observations made in other parts of the world, is the most pressing issue. To increase public awareness of this problem, the Maryland Invasive Species Council has selected them as 'Invaders of the Month' for September.

GAS is an amusing acronym for yet another potentially serious threat to American agriculture, ecosystems and human health. Giant African Snails or, alternately, Giant African Land Snails (GALS) are several huge species in the genus Achatina. One, Achatina fulica, can have an eight-inch long shell and weigh up to two pounds. Because of their large size, ease of care and attractive shell patterns, these snails are tempting subjects for classroom study and the ever-expanding exotic pet trade. However, they are illegal in the United States.

GAS eat a wide variety of more than 500 plant species, including many agricultural fruits and vegetables. They have great reproductive potential, laying several hundred eggs at a time, and producing three or four times per year. The snails are hermaphrodites, having both male and female organs, so any two can mate and both could produce eggs. They can also live up to nine years. Three snails smuggled into Florida in 1966 grew to a population of almost 18,000 in 10 years and were finally eradicated at a cost of $1 million.

The snails also present some public health concern since, like other snails and slugs, they can carry parasites such as Angiostrongylus cantonensis, a tiny rat lungworm. This parasite, which could be transmitted to humans, can produce a rare form of meningitis in those who improperly cook or handle the snails although, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the illness is not usually serious. This parasite is presently established in portions of Louisiana.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture seized numerous GAS from classrooms, pet stores, a snail farm and other sources in several states. Teachers and others have voluntarily surrendered specimens after realizing they also had these snails. As the new school year starts, and educators seek out unique, interesting classroom creatures, they need to be aware of this group of unwelcome organisms.

If you have or encounter these land snails, please do not discard, release, or handle them. Call USDA at 1-888-703-4457 or the Maryland Department of Agriculture at 410-841-5920 for instruction and assistance. Get expert identification before taking any action as there are native snails that look similar. Help us prevent another unwanted outsider from moving into Maryland.

For more information about Giant African Snails and other Invasive Species of Concern, visit the Maryland Invasive Species Council.