By Susan Thurn,
Cable Natural History Museum
“I’ve been slimed!” That’s the comment that came out of my mouth this week as I discovered a host of slugs underneath the log I had just lifted. With the rain we have had this summer and fall, the slugs seem to be more easily observed. It is not just their slug trails that are fascinating to learn about.
Slugs and snails are related and are called gastropods. Like other land snails, most slugs have two pairs of 'feelers' or tentacles on their head. The upper pair senses light while the lower pair is their sense of smell. When disturbed, they retract either pair, and if damaged, they can re-grow the tentacles. Slugs move through muscular contractions on the underside of their foot. Slugs feed on plant materials with a rasping, specialized mouthpart. Slugs can stretch their bodies to 20 times their normal length, allowing them to squeeze through the tiniest spaces to get to their food. They produce mucus to assist them with movement. The mucus secreted by their foot contains fibers to keep the slug from slipping down steep surfaces. Their bodies are made of mostly water, so their soft tissues need to always stay moist. A thicker mucus coats their entire body for protection from elements and predators. When attacked, slugs can contract their body, making their bodies more compact, which when combined with the slippery mucus, makes it difficult to grab. The mucus also is distasteful as a deterrent. For us, just touching this slime can be a deterrent!
The slime trail slugs leave behind has other effects than just assisting with transportation. A slug can use its own trail again and again to find its way around. Other slugs recognize the trail as their own species, leading to success in finding a mate. The trails can also be used by other slugs to find a good plant food source. Carnivorous slugs will also use the trails to find other slugs as a meal. Finally, many slugs will secrete slime cords to lower themselves to the ground.
Slugs feed mostly at night, seeking shelter during the day in soil or under leafy debris. They become more inactive during dry, hot weather, and more active after rain because of the moisture. In drier conditions, they hide in damp places such as under leaves, tree bark, logs, rocks, and man-made structures to retain their body moisture.
Fall is a great time for slugs. This time of year they lay up to fifty eggs in the soil, where the eggs will wait through winter or sometimes for years until moisture conditions are right. Their egg clusters look like colorless jelly. During the winter, some slug species overwinter in hibernation under ground while with other species, the adults die in the autumn.
To some gardeners slugs are considered to be pests because of the destruction they can create in our gardens. However, many slug species play an important role in our ecosystem by eating decaying plant matter. Some slugs eat other slugs and snails, earthworms, or even carrion. They are also food to snakes, salamanders, turtles, birds, toads and even humans. Explore your own back yard, as you never know what slime trails you might run into!
For over 42 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and new exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Post your own stories on the Nature Watch blog at cablemuseumnaturewatch.blogspot.com.