My Terrestrial Mollusk Teacher

Island Life


It was a day, just like so many other days these days. I was going from one place to another, and back. That is all you can generally do once you are in a fenced back yard in the middle of a pandemic semi-lockdown. Perhaps, with the changing seasons and the promise of yet another layer of disease ridden existence possibly on the horizon, we can maybe expect to be further locked down in order to safely avoid something else sometime soon. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing- being confined to a space that is- especially when it is for our own good and the good of others in order to avoid something that sounds to be something that could be horribly bad. And I definitely should not complain, as my confinement extends beyond the four walls of this house. If both my neighbors and myself were to step out of our front doors at the same time, we wouldn’t know it, as we are screened from each other by firs and hollies and Indian plums and all those damn exotics that have been filling my front yard for years, not to mention the 300 or 400 feet in between. My life is socially distanced by default, and at least partly by choice, so I am already there because of where I am.

That’s not what I’m really here to talk about. Instead, what I’d prefer to relate is a tale of unexpected discovery and surprise. It happened the other day as I was going about my unconfined confinement. I wasn’t looking for anything special in the sense that I am always looking for something at least a little different. You can’t really go out looking for something different, because if you’re looking for something different you definitely won’t find it. Whatever it is, it has to find you. That’s the way it works- at least for me. As it was, I was walking out to the backyard and I have no idea what I was thinking about. It could have been the plate of onions and hashbrowns I was carrying to the table under the big fir tree in order to sit down and have perhaps the last outdoor breakfast of the year. Or it might have been that I was feeling somewhat smug at the sight of the woodshed that is now stuffed to the rafters with firewood for this winter- a good situation we have not been in in years. It could have been that I was trying to figure out the next step in our bridge building project, where we are finally realizing the completion of the thirty foot span over our pond- a project we have been teasing ourselves with for longer than we should have. I don’t really remember what I was thinking about as I was heading out there, but I was on some sort of journey when I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, which when viewed it in its entirety, stopped me in my tracks.

In fact, I not only stopped, but I also turned around and headed back to the house to get a tape measure and my camera. For a couple of years now, we have been experiencing a dearth of banana slug sightings around here. Each spring as of late I have been documenting my first encounters with any representative from the Ariolimax  columbianus gang. I believe it was fall last year before I even saw a small one here, which was kind of disturbing, since the native western tree frog has seemingly also been in decline on this property, with the annual spring chorus in our pond having nowhere near the conversation-drowning decibels they were once capable of. And so it was that when I stopped and ran back to the house, it was because a banana slug of truly grand proportions was about to cross the path to the back pond, and it seemed only right and necessary to get a measuring device and a camera to record it. Although the info world on the internets tells me that this species can grow to nearly ten inches, this particular specimen logged in at almost seven inches, which may not be a record but is certainly on the grander side of normal for these parts.

There were a number of comments on the three picture post I put up about this chance meeting on the facebooks. One of them- “almost makes you love the slimy buggers”- got me to thinking, as I had spent nearly fifteen minutes with the traveler down in its forest floor environment. There is a fascinating flow to slug movement as it conforms to the bumps and contours and obstacles it passes over. In many ways it is like watching a slow motion event when tracking a slug on the go. The front end of the slug raises and lowers as it travels, somewhat like it is activated by a determined but slow hydraulic system. There are four appendages on the head that also extend and retract as the slug moves forward. I have always thought of these as antennae, but I see they are correctly referred to as tentacles. The larger, upper ones have a dot on the top that resembles an eye, but apparently the upper tentacles sense changes in light, while the shorter, lower ones sample the ground for chemical changes.

Getting up close and personal with a slug, or any weird form of fauna, can sometimes lead to varying degrees of anthropomorphizing. While not feeling the need for a naming ceremony, I at least felt a bit of empathy towards this terrestrial slime torpedo and followed my bumpersticker credo of catching and releasing it to a piece of ground that wouldn’t  be subject to intrusion by errant dog claws, as it was heading right toward the main path between the house and the canine tussle zone. While they are in transit, the dogs have little regard for whatever might be in the way, let alone what might happen to be underfoot or paw. Having safely moved the slug and then initiated the minutes long process of getting the slime off my fingers, I began to recall the early days of encounters with these gastropods.

Way back in time we had ducks, and the original word I had heard was that runner ducks were the best sluggers. This proved to be very true, and when they were let loose in the vegetable garden where the slugs were doing the most damage, it didn’t take long before the beaks of the ducks were draped in this gelatinous goo. When grabbed, slugs do exude more slime than usual as a defensive mechanism, and this extra secretion wound up wrapped around the intrepid, feathered slug warrior’s beaks. This did not seem to slow them down. What did slow the ducks down was an incursion of raccoons, who tunneled under the chicken wired walls and slaughtered them without hesitation. The results of these night raids, and the subsequent attacks that thwarted my best efforts to stave them off, lead to abandoning the renewal of duck patrols. It was also around this time that I learned that the banana slugs were not the enemy I had originally made them out to be, and that it was the European and Japanese slugs that had hitched rides in on nursery plants that were the true villains here for two reasons. One was that they were competing with the native slugs for food, along with attacking and eating the natives along the way. And instead of being the woodland decomposers that the natives were, these garden interlopers were more likely to do serious damage to the garden plants we wanted to grow.

And so it was that we began deploying beer traps around the yard. This involved pouring beer into some bowl or container and placing them around the garden. It became obvious early on that a fully contained vessel was going to work best. Anything open to the sky was soon found to fill up with what fell from up there, diluting the beer and filling with leaves and other debris so the slugs could easily get out. It was also noted that open bowls might also be found empty the next day, which lead one to suspect those darn dogs and possibly some raccoons had developed a taste for malted beverages as well. The best container turned out to be a quart size container with a snap on top and some holes cut into the sides just below where the top snapped on. As it was, another revelation in the process was that slugs really didn’t care what type of beer it was they were going to drown in. This allowed us to go to the grocery and fill the cart with cases of cheap, 40oz. bottles that some referred to as “scuba tanks”. It was a super, economical way to trap and kill slugs all around the garden, and again we found that it was the bad slugs who mostly went for the beer, while the banana slugs either avoided the soup laid out for them, or they were so big that they could go in and out without any damage. The only downside to death by scuba tank was the looks one got when hauling cases of Lucky forty ouncers to the car. I learned to ignore the stares, and the “knowing” but skeptical nods when one tried to explain that the cartload was for the slug traps.

This summer, the slugs did not bother the potatoes or the chard, and it has been the curious dogs who have thought that pulling still unripened tomatoes off the plants was a fun and important thig to do. We are slowly working back to some semblance of an ornamental garden here as well, and we will probably further diversify the veggies next year. At this time though, I have no plans to further enhance and expand the slug death defenses. This may change, but at present I am not missing the slaughter.