A first-time visitor to Washington might come across a slug and think to themselves, “Yuck, a slug!” However, many Washingtonians know that while non-native slugs are reason to cringe, the native slugs are reason to celebrate. Western Washington is home to more than 20 different native slug species. The most notable, and highly celebrated, is the banana slug.
This mega-mollusk is the second largest slug species in the world and can reach nearly a foot in length. Slugs are closely related to other well-known mollusks, such as clams, oysters and snails. Unlike their shell-bearing relatives, slugs do not need a calcium-rich diet to construct a shell. This allows them to thrive in a much wider range of habitats.
However, due to their lack of external protection, slugs are more likely to succumb to desiccation, or drying out. Thus, they are more dependent on moisture to survive.
Banana slugs are decomposers. That means they eat leaves and other dead materials off the ground and recycle them into soil.
These slimy wonders are most at home on the damp forest floors of the Pacific Northwest where moisture and decaying matter are most abundant. Banana slugs clean the forest floor, create new soil and help spread plant seeds and spores.
If you are looking for banana slugs, you also may find them in trees. Although they do not spend much time in the forest canopy, they can climb – although very slowly. When they descend to the ground, they take the fast track down through their own slime. A slime string is strong enough to hold the slug’s weight and allow it to quickly and safely drop to the forest floor.
So you might be asking, why all the hype about these mucusy mollusks? Here are just a few of their amazing features. When in danger, slugs produce additional mucus to coat their bodies. This makes them taste bad and makes it harder for predators to eat them.
Slug slime also allows these acrobats to climb upside down without falling. Slugs do not have teeth, but instead have a radula, or tongue-shaped object, with up to 27,000 sharp points.
A slug has only one foot that runs the entire length of its body. This single, muscular foot allows it to travel at top speeds of .025 mph.
Banana slugs are celebrated throughout the Northwest with a variety of festivals and contests. These slugs have even earned themselves the title of college mascot at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
If you have yet to see a banana slug in the wild, here are some tips on tracking one down:
• Be sure to bring a magnifying glass to get a better look at the fascinating features of the slug. And remember, when investigating any wildlife, explore with your eyes, not with your hands.
• Warm, moist days will bring most slugs out of hiding; so head out into a forested area after a rain.
• Since slugs will leave a slime trail wherever they go, look closely at the ground for their telltale glistening trails. Once you’ve detected a slime trail, it should lead you right to a slug. If you can’t find a slime trail to follow, try to find an area where mushrooms grow, since they are a favorite food of banana slugs.
• Once you’ve found a slug, sit quietly nearby and watch. A startled slug will retract both sets of light-sensing tentacles, but will slowly extend them back out to survey the area for danger. A patient observer will be rewarded with an opportunity to see the slug emerge from its mantle and get back to work on the forest floor.
Learn more about native slugs through fun games and activities at Slugfest at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Eatonville, June 23-24.
Information: Go to nwtrek.org.