Welcome to Day 15 of 31 Days of Kissing the Wounds, a month of posts about the beauty, longing, and soul inherent in our damaged selves; in the world’s brokenness; in the imperfection, incompleteness, and transience of all that we love; in our recognition of each other as the walking wounded; and in the jagged, messy, splintery, deformed, sullied, unhealed parts of me, you, the natural world, our communities, the culture. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others.
We have descended into the garden and caught three hundred slugs. How I love the mixture of the beautiful and the squalid in gardening. It makes it so lifelike. ~ Evelyn Underhill, Letters
I guess Underhill is thinking of the slugs as the squalid part of the equation (beautiful + squalid = lifelike), but I think slugs — and their gastropod relatives, snails — are quite beautiful. Yes, I have both slugs and snails nibbling in my garden, and they do have their favourite foods, but even in the wettest years (which this was not), they are not especially destructive. I also enjoy seeing them when walking in the woods. They’re often eating amanitas and other mushrooms, reminding me of the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Kristen Lindquist wrote an appreciation of sorts of slugs — I say “of sorts” because it also contains suggestions for killing them — for Down East magazine.)
If you Google “slug,” almost every page that results describes slugs in hurtful terms and lists extermination methods. Imagine what a slug alien overlord would think coming to this planet and realising that our primary consideration of slugs is how to kill them; these are lines from the first page of search results:
In case you’re not completely familiar with slug taxonomy and biology, here’s a little info:
Slugs are in the phylum Mollusca and the class Gastropoda; we commonly call “slugs” any apparently shell-less terrestrial gastropod mollusc. After that, even though slugs may all look similar to us, they derive from several quite different evolutionary lineages, and so are part of different orders and families that aren’t closely related. Some of the families are Arionidae (includes the banana slug), Agriolimacidae, Limacidae (of which the Leopard Slug — Limax maximus — is one), Philomycidae, Testacellidae (carnivores with sharp teeth who eat earthworms); Veronicellidae (herbivores who mostly live in the tropics and subtropics, including in the U.S.). In New England we have slugs in the families Agriolimacidae (Deroceras laeve – meadow slug or brown slug), Arionidae (Arion subfuscus, Arion rufus, Arion vulgaris, Arion ater, Arion hortensis), Limacidae, Philomycidae, and maybe others …. I actually can’t find much online about slugs in New England.
Parts of the Slug (most of this summarised from Wikipedia)
Most land slugs have two pairs of retractable ‘feelers’ (i.e., tentacles), the upper pair of which is optical (light-sensing) and the lower pair of which is olfactory. The mantle is on the top of the slug, behind the head, and under it are the genital opening and anus. On one side (generally the right hand side) of the mantle is a respiratory opening, called the pneumostome. Slugs, having evolved from snails, retain some remnant of their shell, but it’s usually inside them, storing calcium salts. Some slugs have a keel, a prominent ridge running over the middle of their back. The bottom side of the slug is called the foot, because it’s how the slug moves. Like other gastropods, its locomotion is caused by rhythmic waves of muscular contraction of its body, along with secretion of thin, watery mucus to help it glide (it also contains fibers to keep it from slipping on vertical surfaces) and to protect it from injury on the rough ground. Slugs also have to secrete a (thicker) protective layer of mucus to live, since they are almost all water, and without a shell, they are prone to desiccation. This is why slugs like rain and wet conditions, both for more efficient movement and to lessen the expenditure of energy on mucus secretion. The ‘slime trail’ left behind is recognisable to other slugs as to species, which helps them find each other for mating.
Slug reproduction is interesting. All slugs are hermaphrodites, with both female and male reproductive organs, so any other slug in their species will do for mating. Slugs lay eggs, about 30 of them in a hole, covered by leaf litter, in the ground. Here’s a thing that can happen in some species: Apophallation. It’s when the penis, if it should become trapped inside the body of the partner, can be chewed off (by either party!) to allow the slugs to separate. Once it’s gone, the slug can still mate using its female parts. Yippee.
(I mean, who would kill this animal? Except for the fact that they can eat a plant faster than it can grow.)
Eat or Be Eaten
Slugs, besides eating strawberries, dahlias, mums, daffodils, irises, carrots, peas, apples, my autumn crocus, some of my favourite sedums, etc., also eat decaying plant material and fungi, which helps us humans tidy up the world. Most slugs are generalists, eating leaves, fruits, lichens, slime molds, mushrooms, even carrion; some are predators/carnivores, who eat other slugs and snails, or earthworms.
Almost everything eats slugs: reptiles (snakes and lizards, mostly), birds (including starlings, owls, vultures, ducks), mammals (fox, badger, hedgehog), amphibians, beetles, fish. Slugs can also get parasites, including nematodes, blow-flies, house flies, and mites.
You know you want to know more. I wish there were a field guide to slugs for New England.
A Field Guide to the Slugs of Kentucky
Land Gastropods: Snails and Slugs of Los Angeles County
Terrestrial Mollusc Tool, with a searchable database of slugs and snails around the world, emphasis on invasive species; it was “created to assist inspectors at U.S. ports of entry who are inspecting cargo….”
Who could have dreamed them up? At least snails
have shells, but all these have is—nothing.
Small black antennae like fat pins wave
as if they could take in enough to get them through.
Turn them over, they’re the soles of new shoes,
pale and unmarked as babies. They flow,
the soil itself learning how to move and, moving,
almost staying still, their silver monorail
the only evidence of where they’d been.
And they die quiet, or at least (thankfully)
out of the human ear’s range, between two stones,
under heels, shriveling in salt or piss, at the tips
of sharp sticks. Fight back, I hear myself say,
do something. Don’t just take it. ….
— from “Slugs” by Brian Swann
Not that snails aren’t gorgeous, too.
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.