“Oh no! I killed it!” That was my first thought after I stepped on something squishy in the early morning glimmer of a Canadian forest campsite.
The item in question was a round wet blob about the size, shape and color of a small pear. It was covered in wet leaves and dirt, and looked inert, but contracted even more tightly when I poured water on it to clean it off.
After watching it in puzzled fascination for a few moments, “antlers” began to extend from the main form. Then the object expanded horizontally, from pear to banana shape. This was my first encounter with a Pacific Banana Slug, the largest terrestrial slug in North America.
I have only heard about banana slugs as the UC Santa Cruz mascot. Cute, goofy, slimy, yellow, peace-loving. That’s about the extent of my slug knowledge. So, I had… questions.
My first question, did I just step on something endangered?
No, Banana Slugs, aka Ariolimax Columbianus, are not endangered. In fact, you may see several of them together in wooded areas. But they are very susceptible to drying out, making them prime potential victims of climate change. To avoid dehydrating they travel mainly at night producing abundant mucous granules that absorb up to 100X their weight in water to keep the slugs moist. This is the source of what we call “slime.”
This slime contains a toxin that makes them unappealing to most predators, but nothing is ever 100%. Salamanders, garter snakes, raccoons, ducks, foxes and porcupines still find these slugs delicious. On an up note, their slime trails also contain pheromones to attract mates – Woo-hoo!
And just like that, another slug appeared.
Leading to my second question: How do slugs mate?
Banana slug sex is complex and interesting. For one thing, they are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs. Getting jiggy involves a prolonged mating ritual including some mutual smacking and biting, culminating in the unfurling of their penile organs. These are some of the most impressive, um, units in the animal kingdom, often extending the length of the slug’s entire body (banana slugs can grow up to 10 inches long!) Remember that the next time you call a someone a “slug.” In some circles, it’s considered a compliment.
After exchanging sperm, which can take SEVERAL HOURS, Banana slugs will uncouple and go their separate ways, often with both being impregnated.
Next, what are those antler things?
Slugs have two sets of appendages on top of their heads, called tentacles or stalks. The upper pair detect light and movement. The lower pair detect chemicals in the air. These highly sensitive organs allow the slugs to “see,” “smell,” feel, and interpret the slightest changes in the environment around them. This is quite helpful in avoiding those hungry foxes and ducks. Also helpful for finding nice piles of animal dung, dead leaves or fresh mushrooms to eat. Banana slugs are voracious eaters and can consume several times their body weight every day, making them important ecosystem decomposers.
The slug I stepped on was fine. I placed it, along with the second slug, off the beaten path of the camp site in a pile of leaf litter near a decaying log. They moved very, very slowly into the woodsy shadows, one following the other. I don’t know if they went off to “unfurl” and make eggs together, but they left me with a poetic feeling of wonder for the small things we often don’t see. Entire generations of intersecting lives are happening all the time, right under our feet. Sometimes it takes slowing down and expanding our observation skills to notice and appreciate them.
These two slugs inspired me to create this painting,
“Banana Slugs in Moon Puddle”
Acrylic and Metallic acrylic media on Polytab (Mural Fabric)
Hangs with magnetic wood battens
60” x 40”
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