UW News

December 1, 2010

Author ponders snails, slugs and life in the very slow lane

UW News

Karen Luke Fildes illustrations in the new book include this one with two non-native slugs, the grey field slug and chocolate arion, and three West Coast natives.

Karen Luke Fildes illustrations in the new book include this one with two non-native slugs, the grey field slug and chocolate arion, and three West Coast natives.

Trailing along in the fine tradition of the UWs late slug enthusiast Ingrith Deyrup-Olsen, UW staff member David Gordon has written a new book, The Secret World of Slugs and Snails: Life in the Very Slow Lane.

“Different kinds of mucus are used for self-defense, moisture control, and mating,” Gordon writes of the slug and snail characteristic that sticks most with everyone. “When threatened, most slugs secrete an especially thick coating, making them harder to grasp. This thick mucus can gum up the works, actually sealing the mouths of snakes or shrews or causing larger predators such as ducks or dogs to gag.

“The banana slug can suspend itself from a slender but strong slime cord, slowly lowering its body headfirst from the branches of trees or shrubs to reach the ground. The giant gardenslug employs a similar mucous thread to mate in midair.”

(Dont try this at home, the author cautions.)

The Secret World of Slugs and Snails, out this week, is published by Seattle-based Sasquatch Books and is Gordons 19th book about the natural world. His previous books, including the Eat-a-Bug Cookbook and The Compleat Cockroach, have landed him on television shows such as Late Night with Conan OBrien and The View. Hes also been featured in Ripleys Believe It or Not.

Gordon, a science writer for the UWs Washington Sea Grant program and College of the Environment, first crossed paths in 1994 with UW zoologist Deyrup-Olsen, popularly known as the “slug lady.”

“To meet the slugs needs for a cool, moist clime, Deyrup-Olsen kept her spineless treasures, the invertebrate equivalents of laboratory rats and mice, in a walk-in cooler on the UW campus,” Gordon writes in his book. “Her research assistants fed them mixed greens and lovingly spritzed them with plant misters.”

UW staff member David Gordon has written 19 books about the natural world. Here's the cover of his latest one.

“We look down on mucus – its what we put on our Kleenex. But its really important. If we have too much, were sick. If we have too little, were sick.” In his book he writes about the life-saving secrets in slug slime investigated by Deyrup-Olsen and UW biochemist Pedro Verdugo.

Snails and slugs also are recognized as key ecosystem players: “As long-established links in the great chain of life, they perform several important roles, as gardeners, recyclers, and food sources for shrew moles, carabid beetles, and many other small animals,” Gordon writes.

So why, given their mucus talent and ecosystem contributions, are slugs and snails so reviled that a search of the Internet mainly concerns their eradication?
Blame the invaders, Gordon says.

Oh and, on top of that, the way we garden to allow the invaders to thrive.

In his book he describes native West Coast snails and slugs such as the warty jumping slug. (Jumping being a relative term. Think inch-worm jumping, Gordon says. Inch-worm jumping being, of course, something were all familiar with.) These mainly woodland dwelling creatures dont care much for gardens with rows of plants separated by swaths of soil.

The warty jumping slug and its native brethren are different from the dark molluscan marauders that have been introduced to the West Coast, such as the chocolate arion slug. That slug is described by Gordon as a well-established, non-native species that some years has “munched its way through more than 75 percent of Washingtons strawberry crop.”

“Non-native species were transported to and, in at least one instance, intentionally dumped into the same environment within the past century or two. Participants in this second wave of settlement have easily adapted to the plant communities, weather conditions, and perturbations of humankind. Some of these recent arrivals are aggressive, driving away native snails and slugs to eventually dominate forested or farmed sites. Several kick the hostility up a notch, actively pursuing, dispatching, and ingesting the indigenous gastropod fauna.”

Who wants those around?

Thats part of Gordons inspiration for doing the book.

Foremost, he wants readers to be able to identify native slugs and snails and to recognize that there are ways to discourage the non-natives without resorting to remedies that have consequences for beneficial mollusks, garden inhabitants such as birds, pets and – even – humans.

He urges gardeners and homeowners to skip toxic chemicals and, instead, avoid such things as watering in the evening or putting compost piles adjacent to garden areas, which just encourages non-native slugs.

“The challenge for most gardeners is to maintain a balance – a concept, alas, that the non-native slugs and snails seem to know nothing about,” Gordon writes. That balancing act can be difficult for people, too, he says. Most of us feed, water and weed our gardens for maximum yield.

“Because of our horticulture prowess,” he writes, “There is seldom a real shortage of food for the slithering hordes.” In his book he advises, “Lets not put any other forms of wildlife, including ourselves and our neighbors, needlessly at risk from the misuse (and overuse) of molluscicides.

“And lets proceed slowly, taking time to get to know, if not live, a “Life in the Very Slow Lane.”

Gordon created a special FaceBook page, Pulmonata as a forum to swap tales and share info about land-dwelling slugs and snails. There you can find such things as a picture of Dr Richard Mead, the 18th-century physician credited with a recipe for snail-water that was believed to a multi-purpose remedy for what ails you, and the dates of book signings and readings. For example, Gordon will be at Elliott Bay Book Company, 2 p.m., Jan. 8, and be presenting at the Pacific Northwest Flower & Garden Show the afternoon of Feb. 27.

Slug and snail facts

David Gordon says he enjoys the challenge of writing about less-well-loved creatures in the hopes people will come to find them fascinating and wonderful. Here are some of his favorite facts about slugs and snails to get you started.

  • Slugs are basically snails without shells. Some slugs have small slivers of shell—the remainders of their ancestors shelled state. We call these creatures “semi-slugs.”
  • French diners consume more than 14,000 tons of escargot snails every year.
  • The largest land snail on record was a giant Ghana tiger snail named “Gee

Geronimo.” This mega-mollusk from Sierra Leone, Africa, measured 151/2 inches from head to tail and weighed a tad more than two pounds.

  • Snail water was among the medicines used by London hospitals in the early 1700s. Made with six gallons of garden snails, “cleansed and bruised,” this concoction was thought to cure consumption.
  • The current holder of the land speed record for slugs is the yellow slug, a strapping 3-inch to 4-inch specimen from Eastern Europe, clocked at a peak speed of 0.039 miles per hour.
  • Guinea fowl are superb slug and snail catchers. Their fertilized eggs and live chicks can be ordered from breeders by mail, reared to adulthood, and released in the garden to devour any pest species.
  • In the mid-1980s, students at the University of California Santa Cruz chose their states native Banana Slug over the sea lion for the campus official mascot.
  • Snails and slugs are hermaphrodites, equipped with both male and female reproductive parts. And yes, under certain conditions, they can mate with themselves.
  • “To err is human, to slime sublime.”