Sunday, June 12, 2005

Alien Life Form

Warning: The following account is rated PG, for some gross slimy pictures and a tragic ending.

A few weeks ago, I decided to clean out the pump house (well ... maybe I should say, I was forced to clean out the pump house after the pump broke, and it was the only way I could get to it to have it fixed).

As I poked around amidst the pool chemicals, hoses, and mortal remains of various perfurated inflatables (Sam's handiwork), I came across a strange object that looked like a large sea-shell, apparently stuck to the back wall. I had to use a small shovel to pry it off, at which point it emitted a strange hissing sound ... almost a scream, or an intake of air as if a vacuum seal had been broken.

Startled, my first reaction was ... Alien! I retreated quickly, fearing it was going to jump on my face and stick a tube down my throat. But as my calm returned and rationality with it, I studied the creature more closely:

It was indeed some kind of giant snail. Although I had never seen one before, I had heard of them: In Brazil, they are known as the Caramujo Gigante Africano (Achatina fulica Bowdich), or Giant African Snail. A little research on the internet confirmed the identification: a native of northeast Africa, introduced accidently to the south of Brazil in the 1980's by someone who thought they were importing escargot, this creature has thrived and spread throughout much of Brazil. Since they reproduce rapidly, have no native predators, and consume large quantities of vegetable matter, they are considered a pest and a real threat to the native habitat as well as agricultural activities.

To top it off, they are known to carry several really nasty parasites, including one that causes a form of bacterial meningitis that is generally fatal.

As a result, Brazilian authorities have waged a ruthless campaign against the Giant African Snail, and are unequivocal as to their policy toward these animals: they are to be eradicated. Government information campaigns explain in gory detail how to rid your yard of the slimy pest: if encountered, they should be collected (with gloves!), then burned or boiled, and their shells should be crushed before being disposed of (to prevent their shells from becoming breeding repositories for dengue-carrying mosquitos).

This sounded like alot of work to me. I contemplated heaving it over the fence into the neighbor's yard, but then I realized that if it proliferated, nothing would prevent the offspring from infesting my yard as well.

My second thought was to contact the Authorities and demand that they deal with it. I envisioned a HAZMAT team descending on our yard, dressed in yellow rubber suits with oxygen masks. A perimeter would be established, and our entrance would be sealed with yellow tape. We would be quarantined, while the technicians conducted a sweep of the yard with sophisticated electronic equipment while the neighbors whispered nervously to each other behind drawn curtains.

Well, maybe I've seen too many movies and post-911 news reports (anybody remember anthrax???).

Still unsure what to do with my discovery but being very careful not to come into contact with its' lethal scum, I mounted my own hazardous material removal operation: using plastic bags, rubber gloves, and varios garden implements, I managed to trap the dangerous creature in a large bucket (Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, would have been impressed!). Secure in the knowledge that the animal was safely caged (with a couple of pounds of bricks piled on the lid!), I settled in for further internet research. What kind of decontamination procedures should I follow for my pump house? What if Kevin or Sam (the dog) were to come into contact with the deadly mucous trail that it must have left in it's wake? And where in the world did it come from? How did it get in my pump house? What if there are more of the vile creatures out there?

The more I read about the animal, however, the more I realized that the poor creature had been given a bad rap (university websites usually offer the most objective information). First off, the parasites it can transmit are picked up as the result of sliding over already contaminated rat urine; in other words, it will only be deadly if it has come in contact with deadly rats. Second, the diseases that this species is known to transmit have, as of yet, never been detected in Brasil. So far, they are known to exist only in the snail's native habitat of Africa and Asia, and the only chance of it being introduced to Brasil would be if a contaminated rat from Africa were somehow to disembark in Brazil and the snail were to slither through it's urine: all in all, not a highly probable eventuality.

The snail is, however, a prolific pest and a threat to agriculture in Brazil, which explains the government's campaign to exterminate it, as well as the (mis)information campaign that seeks to villify this species. Nevertheless, I was hesitant to fulfill my civic duty and carry out the required sentence according to official dogma. By now, the creature had already been informally given a name: Gary (anyone who has kids or has seen SpongeBob Squarepants will know where that name comes from!).

Still, prudence dictated that I not be overly complacent. Better safe than sorry. So I left Gary in the bucket (with the bricks), in the pump-house in the hope that nature would take care of the problem on it's own (daytime temperatures in the high 80's, no water ...). I know-- not exactly the most humane form of execution -- but the thought of having to smell charred escargot turned my stomach.

The next morning, I was shocked to discover that the lid from the bucket (together with the bricks!) had been overturned, and Gary was gone! A shiver ran down my spine as I took in the implications: maybe Gary really was more than just a snail! Maybe his alien companions had busted him out! Man, they're going to be pissed!

Or maybe a snail is just stronger than I thought.

It didn't take me long to find the sorry fugitive: cowering beneath the pool filter, about 30 cm from the bucket (snails aren't very fast). I returned him to the bucket and doubled the pile of bricks. I then proceeded to forget about him for the next few days....

When I finally remembered him, I removed him from the bucket, sure by now that he was a goner. But then, as I prepared to wrap Gary in newspaper and place him in the trash, suddenly his antennae appeared. As I quietly observed him, he slowly came out of his shell and resumed his breakneck flight to freedom. The photo sequence can be seen in the gallery: click here

That's when I realized I had no choice. I would have to carry out the sentence: I couldn't just return him to solitary confinement and let him die of dehydration and starvation; much less did I want to keep Gary as a "pet". In the end, I copped out: I couldn't bring myself to look him in those sad little tentacle-eyes and incinerate him like a man. After confining him for nearly a week, a plastic bag and a heavy rock brought a quick end to poor Gary's suffering.


At June 12, 2005 11:13 PM, Kim said...

Holy COW!! That is a huge snail! I guess it's named well!! Thanks for keeping us updated on all in Brasil. If only I managed my time better, I could do the same...

At June 13, 2005 3:25 PM, Célio Fonseca said...

Jimmy. Up from my 77 years living in Brazil I would like to tell you that since the time I was born in the State of Minas Gerais, I'm used to see snells like the one responsible for your nice and knowledgable comments; as far as I’m informed, no reports are known about diseases originated from contact with this kind of shells. Nowadays there are, yes, a kind of shell entirely different from the one you have found that are responsible for a kind of disease named "XISTOSOMOSE" that people can acquire when swimming in ponds were that kind of shells are found.
Please have a look on the comments I got from the Internet about the subject.
Hospedeiro intermediário: Caramujo do gênero Biomphalaria. É um molusco de água doce chamado planorbídeo - conhecido popularmente por caramujo. Esse molusco tem a concha em espiral, com as voltas ou giros no mesmo plano, recebendo por isso a denominação de planorbídeo. Os caramujos ou planorbídeos criam-se e vivem na água doce de corrégos, riachos, valas, alagados, brejos, açudes, represas ou outros locais onde haja pouca correnteza. Os caramujos jovens alimentam-se de vegetais em decomposição e folhas verdes. Os caramujos põem ovos, dos quais, depois de alguns dias, nascem novos caramujos que crescem e tornam-se adultos. Das várias espécies de caramujos existentes três mostraram-se capazes de infectar-se com o S.mansoni : Biomphalaria tenagophila, B.glabrata e B. straminea.

At June 14, 2005 9:02 AM, Jim said...


Managing my time well has never been my strong point. Taking time to write in a blog may be just an example of screwed up priorities... surely there is something more important I should be doing right now !?!

Sr. Celio,
There is indeed a species of giant snail that is native to Brasil, but its' shell is rounder, and, as you noted, it isn't the vector of any major diseases. I don't think it's considered as much of a threat to agriculture here either, since it's probably more adapted to the environment. The African Snail even proliferates within urban areas, and are spreading at an alarming rate throughout Rio.

The giant african snail hasn't been associated with xistosomose as far as I remember. There is a detailed report (in portuguese)about this species at

At June 14, 2005 12:34 PM, Anonymous said...

That was great! You should consider becoming a writer.

At June 15, 2005 12:37 AM, Kim said...

I managed my time today by going to the zoo for 6 hours of walking - with my mom and 5 kids. I would rather have bee working on a blog! Actually, Lane had a great time with his "other" cousins. One of these days, he will get to the zoo with your kids and teach them all he has learned about the animals that are native to the KC Zoo. I did get some pretty pictures though. You would be proud! We also got to go into the Lorikeet's Habitat and actually feed them. Only my mom got pooped on so I guess she is the lucky one. I'm still going to send pictures of when you all were here, plus others if you want them...


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