Snail space

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Motorists in Hawaii in the 1950s faced an unusual hazard.

Snails. The Giant African Land variety no less. Driving home on a rainy night meant risking a nasty skid on their squashed and slimy corpses.

Walkers strolling through the Pacific paradise were not keen either. Nor were gardeners or farmers, as the Giant African, which can grow up to 20cm high, is a gluttonous gastropod, as partial to sweet juicy fruit as they were.

The snail was not native to Hawaii, but arrived in 1936 - probably because someone fancied it as a patio pet. Over the years it has blazed a trail round other Pacific islands too. In French Tahiti, for example, farmers spied an investment opportunity when they realised that the Giant African was as delicious as any Parisian escargot. But the business died and the snails were left to fend for themselves. They did not find this hard. The Giant African feels at home in a tropical climate and simply got on with what it does best - eating and reproducing. It lays more than 100 eggs a year, most of which survive. Levels of slime were rising, and so were tempers. Something had to be done.

But the solution has been a disaster. To control the Giant African, islanders introduced the Rosy Wolf snail, a nasty little beast from Florida. This 6cm pink predator tracks its relatives by following their slime trails. It moves fast (for a snail), and catches and eats them. The hope was it would go after the Giant African. It didn't.

No, the Rosy Wolf preferred the island's native gastropods. Now it is estimated that 75 per cent of the 800 species of Hawaiian snail have been wiped out. Most of these were found nowhere else on Earth. The same sad tale has been repeated in Tahiti - where only six of the 61 native species remain - and in Samoa, and in the Bahamas.

Scientists have even tried creating havens for endangered species with barricades containing chilli pepper. The idea is that snails won't cross anything so painful. Let's just hope the Rosy Wolf doesn't get a taste for snail curry.

STEPHANIE NORTHEN

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