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Ah Florida…sultry weather, orange groves, glistening beaches, pouting beauties, and palm trees…but also walking catfish, killer snakes, and now giant mollusks! The semi-tropical peninsula is prey to wave after wave of exotic animal invaders. The most-recent problem creatures are giant African snails, immense land snails that can grow up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) long. There are three extremely similar species of giant snails which come from West Africa: the giant African snail (Achatina fulica), the giant Ghana tiger snail (Achatina achatina), and the margies (Archachatina marginata). Each snail has a brown swirly shell and grows to be about the size of an adult’s fist.
The giant snails eat over 500 varieties of plants—including the majority of agricultural and ornamental species. They also have a taste for stucco and siding so some Floridians now awaken to discover that huge mollusks are literally devouring their houses. The snails are hermaphrodites and can lay up to 12000 eggs per year. They can survive freezing temperatures.
Authorities continue to investigate how the snails got into the country but increasingly the evidence points to…voodoo.
In the Yoruba creation myth, the entire world was once water. The god Obatala possessed a magic snail shell which contained earth. Acting on instructions from the supreme divinity Olódùmarè, Obatala cast this land upon the oceans, thus creating the continents. Obatala then molded the land into men and beasts–but he possessed an artist’s temperament and thirst. As he crafted the Earth and its inhabitants he drank so much palm wine that his mental clarity became dulled and he made big parts of existence wrong. Eventually he passed out altogether and his brother Oduduwa was left to finish the work and patch up the errors as best as he could. Unfortunately big parts of humanity were assembled incorrectly and these flaws remain in evidence everywhere…
Anyway a mainstay of Obatala worship is the sacrifice of snails (in memory of the primordial snail shell which contained the first earth). Apparently one of Obatala’s worshippers illegally brought some giant African snails into Florida for religious reasons and they escaped from him.
So, to recap, a smuggler who worships a drunken deity brought giant hermaphrodite snails in to Florida as a religious devotion to his addled god. Unfortunately the snails escaped and they are now eating people’s homes. Argh! What is wrong with us? I’m going to go drink some palm wine…
I’m going to expand upon yesterday’s post about invasive animals in Florida. Pythons are indeed large aggressive predators, but it isn’t as though they chose to move to Florida like Aunt Edna when she retired. Enthusiasts brought them from Burma. The pythons escaped or were set free and they found a way to survive.
Florida’s groves of tasty, tasty oranges are hardly natives either. Over long centuries, Spaniards carefully hybridized trees that bore perfect sweet fruit. They then carried saplings across the oceans from the fragrant orchards of Iberia.
We humans are ourselves an invasive tropical species from Africa. As we have explored the world, we have encountered all sorts of useful and interesting plants and animals. Thereafter we took those friends with us. Dogs, ducks, and dairy cows, roses, rye and rice–all of our favorite living things are invaders of a sort. Sometimes we make bad or dubious friends (pythons? really?) but our existence depends on the grains we harvest, the fruit we grow, and the animals we farm. Such is the price of our success. If we all returned to fishing, hunting, and gathering, we could expect to remove three or four zeros from our total population number of six billion.
The story of invasive species however extends far beyond humankind’s symbiotic alliances and restless propensities. A couple of quick examples will clarify this point. Like the pythons, Florida’s native manatees have a great deal of trouble with cold weather. Every winter, many starve to death in the warm outflows from power stations where they shelter (or they freeze outright). They must have expanded their range northwards as the ice ages ended. The armadillos that live on the panhandle are edentates who began trekking out of South America during the Pliocene (3 million years ago) when the Ismuth of Panama formed and rejoined the sundered Americas.
This story goes on and on and gets bigger and bigger: flowering plants showed up from elsewhere, so did mammals and reptiles back in the Paleozoic Era. In fact, if you go back far enough all life-forms are invaders.
South Florida’s ecosystem has been trying to fend off an onslaught of non-native tropical animals, most notably the fearsome Burmese python, an apex predator from the haunted jungles of Southeast Asia. Internet surfers and reptile enthusiasts might remember the dramatic photo of a 13 foot python which burst open after trying to swallow a live 6 foot alligator whole.
Florida’s native birds, lapdogs, toddlers, and alligators will therefore rejoice at the past winter’s severity, which put a big dent in the python population (and left other non-native fish and reptiles frozen stiff across the state). Pythons fall into a catatonic stupor if temperatures plunge too low. In the depths of January when the mercury dipped into the thirties, rangers reported finding live snakes being methodically devoured by vultures. Homeowners were shocked by all of the iguana-cicles falling out of ornamental trees. Spring and summer will reveal how badly the invaders have been set back in comparison with Florida’s cold-tolerant native species.