Slime Sublime

Gardeners' arch-nemesis, the misunderstood slug plays an important role in the forest ecosystem - and you won't believe its sex life

Posted: Sunday, July 03, 2005

Let's just be honest. Slugs are not the most-loved lowly life in the world.

Gardeners launch slug safaris daily. Slimy, soft and slow, even birds don't like them. When you walk barefoot in your garden, there is nothing more gross than stepping on a slug and feeling the flat slimy body on your feet.

When the University of California-Santa Cruz named the banana slug its team mascot in 1986, after a five-year struggle with the name "Sea Lions," students rooted for slugs for a reason.

"Imagine the fear in the hearts of opponents who travel there to face the imaginatively named 'Banana Slugs'?" wrote Judge Terence Evans in an opinion for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in a case about campus mascots.

Even slug murderers admit that slugs are important to the ecosystem. Recyclers of the forest, slugs help disperse seeds and spores.

"They help decompose and break things down," said Juneau's Ed Buyarski, who kills slugs daily by shooting ammonia solution at them. "But I cannot say I like them. You pick a whole cabbage from your garden, slice it apart and you find the slugs already making a nice home inside. You pick a beautiful red strawberry and when you are ready to pop it into your mouth, you find the slugs already eating their way into the strawberry.

"I might like them if I found good recipes for slugs," said Buyarski, owner of Ed's Edible Landscaping. His children used to hunt slugs for one slug a penny.

It is unknown how many species of slugs there are in Southeast Alaska. Banana slugs, European black slugs and great gray garden slugs are some of the familiar breeds in the Northwest, according to "The Western Society of Malacologists Field Guide to the Slug," by David George Gordon.

Lindsey Edgai, an interpreter with the U.S. Forest Service, said few people know that slugs are fascinating creatures.

Edgai, who hosted a slug program at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center last month, said slugs have more rows of teeth than do sharks. Having one big muscular foot, slugs move by propelling the foot's muscle horizontally from the back to the front. Slugs can travel 0.025 mph at top speed.

Slugs have two pairs of tentacles to sense the environment. The short tentacles feel and smell while the longer ones sense light. A small hole on the slug's right side leads to a single lung.

Slugs are hermaphrodites, which means they have both male and female reproductive organs. During courtship, two slugs circle each other, often for hours, with both partners lunging and sideswiping with their tails. They eventually wrap themselves in an S position and stimulate each other for several more hours before both release and receive sperm. With both covered in sticky mucus, one banana slug sometimes will have to gnaw off the other's penis in order to separate.

Slugs' slime has multiple functions. It can keep the skin moist so the slug can breathe through it. The slime protects the slugs from predators. It also helps the slugs move, both vertically and horizontally. The slugs can lower themselves on a strong rope of mucus and pull themselves up.

"To err is human; to slime, sublime," Gordon said in the introduction to his field guide.

• I-Chun Che can be reached at

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