Giant African snails have showed up in the news over the past few years. They've been castigated for destroying the environment and giving people meningitis. It turns out that they are being unfairly maligned! Kind of!

Giant African snails are hand-sized snails that have been favored, for a time, as pets by irresponsible jerks. We know the pet owners were irresponsible jerks, because they let their pet snails out into the wild. The snails decided to respond to this by giving their new country the virtual middle finger. They ate everything in sight, including valuable parts of our ecosystem. And that's when calumny entered the equation. In news stories about giant African snails, writers talked about environmental degradation, but also alleged that these foreign snails can give people meningitis. That's not African land snails so much as every snail.

Advertisement

Meningitis is not brought on by any specific disease. It's the term for the swelling of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or a fungal infection. In the case of the snails, it's caused by a rat parasite. The parasite's natural life cycle shuttles it between two creatures. In its adult phase, it burrows around in the lung of a rat. At some point, it drops out larva, which migrate to the feces of the rat. Snails, while grazing on leaves, eat the rat feces along with everything else. The larvae infect the snails, living in them until they are almost mature, at which point the snails are eaten by rats and this majestic cycle of life can begin all over again.

The parasite only gets passed to humans when people eat uncooked snail meat. (This happens more often than you'd think. Check your salads before you eat them.) Most of the time, people aren't affected by the parasite, but on occasion the parasite causes an infection that spreads to the spinal cord and the brain. Meningitis, thankfully, can be treated with antibiotics, but it's important to catch it as soon as possible.

Advertisement

Now you may have noticed that there's nothing in there about how giant African snails are more likely to carry the parasite than any other snail. That's because they aren't. All snailscan be infected, including the cute little ones sliming around your garden. The only reason there's not a wave of meningitis spreading across the country is you would pretty much have to eat the snail to contract it. It takes more than a little poke with a finger to get them inside your body. African snails are, if anything, less likely to be agents of infection, since no one misses a hand-sized snail in their food.

So you can sleep soundly tonight, knowing that foreign snails aren't coming for your spine. Just keep yourself awake thinking that, if you let a snail climb across your hand, you have been bathed in the juices of something that eats rat poop so often that an entire species' reproductive cycle depends on it.

[Via Giant African Land Snails, CDC]