A rare parasite that can cause sickness in humans and animals is present in more species of snails in Florida than previously thought, potentially putting people and pets who eat snails at risk.

 giant African snail (GAS) Image/Video Screen Shot
giant African snail (GAS) Image/Video Screen Shot

University of Florida scientists made the discovery after an orangutan treated at UF died from eating snails carrying the parasite Angiostrongylus cantonensis, known as the rat lungworm. While the rat lungworm is considered established in snail populations in Hawaii, until now it has not been commonly seen in the continental United States. However, the researchers’ findings show the parasite may now be established in South Florida, which raises concerns about how it got there and the potential implications for both animal and human health.

“Determining the geographic distribution of this parasite in Florida is important due to the hazards to human health,” said Heather Walden, Ph.D., an assistant professor of parasitology at UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine and lead author of a study published online this month in the Journal of Parasitology.

The rat lungworm is a nematode that can affect both animals and humans. It uses the rat as a definitive host and gastropods, such as snails, as intermediate hosts.

Florida’s large horticultural industry makes the parasite’s presence in the state particularly disturbing because plant nurseries are one of its most important modes of transport.

“Most of the snails found to be intermediate hosts for this parasite in our study are invasive and some feed on or shelter on ornamental plants, which have the potential for distribution throughout Florida and in other areas of the United States,” Walden said.

Read the rest of the University of Florida news release HERE