MIAMI -

State and federal agriculture officials are working to stop the spread of destructive giant snails whose population is exploding in South Florida.

The giant African land snail, Achatina fulica, was first found in South Florida on Sept. 8. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services now has a crew of 70 people in South Florida snail hunting. Thousands of the snails have been collected on 85 properties in five areas in Miami-Dade County.

"We've surveyed 8,000 properties. We've found 10,000 snails," said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Those areas are around Bird Road and 65th Avenue, the Kendall/Hammocks area, Lemon City and Little Havana, Hialeah and Miami in the area of 2768 SE 33rd Court.

"We're working diligently to keep this outbreak from spreading and impacting our Everglades and other natural areas. It impacts our agricultural commodities. It feeds on 500 different plants. It affects human health. It is a known carrier of meningitis," Putnam said.

Officials said the snails also can cause structural damage to plaster and stucco.

"This snail is one bad dude -- for the environment, for humans and for our economy," Putnam said.

The snail can grow up to eight inches in length and more than four inches in diameter.

"One female can lay 200 eggs at one time, so in a year, they can lay up to 1,200 eggs. So it doesn't take long to have an infestation grow," Dr. Trevor Smith, of the Florida Department of Agriculture, said earlier this month.

The last reported outbreak in Florida occurred in 1966 when a boy smuggled three giant African land snails into Miami as pets. The boy's grandmother released the snails into her garden, and seven years later, more than 18,000 snails were found. It took $1 million and 10 years to eradicate the pest from Florida.

Experts said they do not know why the snails reappeared.

"They are used in some religious rites -- illegally, but they are used. And we believe that that may be contributing to the spread, to the movement of the snails from one place to another," Putnam said.

State officials are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine the extent of the infestation and to create a strategy to stop their spread. Millions of dollars will be spent to eradicate the snails.

"The key to a successful eradication of this pest is the public," Putnam said.

Officials said people should not touch the snails with their bare hands and should wear rubber gloves if contact is necessary. If you see a giant African land snail, call the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at 888-397-1517.