Nature's Slimy Friends
Eeeew! Yuck! Get me some salt and hurry!" a woman screams as she steps out of her tent on a camping trip. She comes within two feet of stepping on a giant yellow slug while barefoot. Assuming the slug is just like the slugs in her yard that eat the roots of her prized carrot plant, she drops a barrage of salt pellets on the defenseless slug's head. The salt causes the innocent slug to crawl out of its protective slime-coating in agony. Moisture quickly leaves the slug's body and all that is left for the woman's husband to find when he comes outside is a shriveled corpse.
That may seem a rather sympathetic view of a slug's demise, but what can I say? That is how my uncle died. You see, I am a slug. Now do not automatically put down this paper in revulsion. Let me explain a little about myself. I am a proud member of the banana slug species. I live in Washington State and the rest of my family live mainly in the Pacific Northwest. One will rarely see me eating in a human's garden, however. Hikers label me "beautiful," children call me "awesome," and naturalists find me "friendly." I realize that most humans despise slugs, but I have also heard a human saying, "One fears what one does not understand." So I am taking it upon myself to explain about my and other slug species found in North America. Hopefully when I am done, the next time you look at a slug, you will smile and nod with understanding.
Ancient slugs started life in the ocean like every other living creature. Then one day a group of slugs decided it was time to explore the dry land. These slugs are the ancestors of today's terrestrial slugs. However, the need for watery surroundings has not been forsaken. The coating of slime surrounding my body is the means to living without a shell - unlike my cousin the snail - and not dehydrating. Slug slime is similar to a sponge in the way it absorbs water from the air and ground to keep my vulnerable body from drying out.
This slime is also my mode of transportation. Humans use hiking boots and vehicles to travel over rough areas. I come equipped with only one muscular foot. If I were to wear a shoe it would cover my whole body and I would not be able to tell where I was heading. So instead, I secrete two different kinds of slime from a pedal gland located under my head. This slime then mixes, slides below my foot, and protects my sensitive foot from the ground. My slime is so protective that one day I even crawled over a razor blade that a camper had dropped, without getting hurt. After I had passed it, I looked back to see a squirrel cut its paw on the same blade that did not even tickle my tummy. Not only does my slime allow me to slither easily across the earth, I am also able to rappel down a tree that I may happen to find myself in. A thread of slime gathers on my foot which allows me to slowly drop from a tree branch, very much like a spider and his silk thread. So if you happen to walk under a tree and look up to find a slimy body seemingly start to fall on your head, do not worry. No right-minded slug would land on a human head because hair sticks to our bellies and makes crawling very painful.
Along with silvery slime, my body is outfitted with two pairs of tentacles on top of my head.
The taller pair act like a light-meter. With these, I can tell where a light source is or if I am in the dark. The second, smaller tentacles are both my fingers and tongue. While out and about searching for food, I can feel around and get a taste for what I am touching. Once I find a plant to my liking, I get ready to feast. I do not take out a knife and fork like humans; instead, I use my radula, also called a tongue. My tongue is covered with numerous small teeth, about twenty-five thousand. These teeth scrape off the plant's layers so it is unnecessary to chew my food once it is inside my mouth. The food then travels through my body for digestion. In the end, all I leave behind are very nutritious droppings, which plants love to eat.
My tongue is not only used on living plants; other food items I eat include dead organic materials. Dead leaves are my favorite and are abundant on the forest floor where I live. Since the trees and bushes are kind enough to give me food, I try to return the favor by collecting their seeds and spores with my slime and leaving them in faraway dirt to flourish and grow. Often I find plenty of seeds while eating leftover animal droppings.
Speaking of food, allow me to introduce my guest speaker. He is a foreign exchange slug from Oregon. His family originated in Germany and is notorious in humans' gardens and greenhouses. Here is his side of the plant-eating conflict:
Hey! I heard that Americans hate our European slug guts. I am sorry, but it is not really our fault. Our forefathers had been eating bulbs in Germany and Holland when some farmers decided to ship the bulbs to North America. The slugs were torn away from their friends and families and were forced to start new lives in a new country. Luckily, they were able to adapt, or else I would not be here today. Actually, the move helped my fellow European friends because here, in America, we have very few natural predators hunting us for dinner.
Some of us European slugs are rather brutal, not just to plants, but to other slugs. A few cannibalistic species, such as the great gray garden slug, are a gang to stay well away from. A few weeks ago, I had a close encounter with one of these slugs on the edge of a road. I was crawling along, minding my own business, when suddenly I saw a gray slug heading my way. He was coming after me like a bullet. I was scared and as I looked around for a hiding place, I felt like I could not slither fast enough. He was so close I could feel his taller stalks on my tail. Then, suddenly, he was not there anymore. My anxiety carried me far past this spot so that when I looked back, all that was to be seen was the smushed carcass of the enemy slug. I suspect a human foot was involved.
This incident made me believe that humans were actually my friends. I am not so sure anymore, though. One time, a sneaky human took sawdust and sprinkled it all around his yummiest plants during the day. That night, I came out for a midnight meal and received a surprise. When I tried to crawl over the sawdust, it tickled my stomach so much that I was forced to retreat home.
All this talk about food is making me yearn for a healthy flower stalk. Did you know that all slugs eat as much as their body weighs each night? That may not seem like much since we are considerably light, but imagine eating 140 pounds of salad a day. So I had better get hunting for a nice foraging spot before the other slugs think I am going on a diet. See you later!
Hi! Your banana slug host has returned. I have just a few more things to say before I leave. Though we may seem gross and annoying, slugs help to clean up the earth we live in. Just the other night, I got together with a few other banana slugs and we had a housecleaning party. Instead of eating living plants, we ate all the decomposing material on the ground until we were so full we could hardly crawl back to our homes. The next night, we traveled to an area that, for some reason, was devoid of slugs. In the area nature's garbage, such as dead plants, littered the ground. A feast was held throughout the night with everyone celebrating the abundance of food. Surrounding plants were happy since our nutritional feces were left in the soil. This story leads to the point that if I, and every other slug, did not exist today, campers would have a lot more muck to hike through.
If I have not yet convinced you of a slug's lovable potential, or at least our helpfulness to the environment, perhaps these humans' actions will influence you. I overheard two people talking about a store in Washington. Apparently, humans who live in the area admire slugs and create paraphernalia dedicated in our honor. Such items include magnetic wooden slugs to put on refrigerators and chocolate chunks shaped like slugs. Another popular item (this one makes me worry) is a cookbook titled The Best Washington Slug Recipes with all the recipes having some sort of slug included!
I have also been told by a traveling slug that the University of California at Santa Cruz has named banana slugs as their official mascot. Many relatives of mine live in California's redwood forests near this college. Apparently, they have won the hearts of several students who root for the Banana Slugs at every sporting event. Not only is California home to famous human celebrities, now it is the home for slug celebrities too.
I hope I have helped you to understand more about me and my relatives. I understand if you still think I am repulsive. I sometimes think a human is repulsive too, especially after they spend five days in the woods without a bath. At least we do not smell bad.
If I have hit a soft spot in your heart, I hope you will come visit me sometime. I can be found at night eating lichen on a tree's trunk. I will be watching for you so do not step on me!
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Less than 1 period.
Supplement a study of biology with an activity drawn from this winning student essay.
- Send students to this online article, or print copies of the essay for them to read.
- Have them select an insect to research, focusing on its biology and its role in the environment.
- Then, have students write a narrative essay, written from the viewpoint of their insect, that summarizes their research.
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