By Paul James
Slimy. Gross. Yucky. Those are just three words that quickly come to mind when I think about slugs, those slithering, nocturnal gastropods that can ravage everything from hostas to strawberries while we sleep. And yet, while there’s no getting around the fact that they’re both disgusting and destructive, they’re also fascinating creatures. Really they are.
The familiar garden slug descended from the shelled snail and has been around for about 150 million years. But its marine ancestors – which can weigh up to 30 pounds! -- date back to almost 500 million years ago. So like it or not, it’s safe to say slugs aren’t going anywhere soon.
And that’s a good thing, because however repulsive they may be, they play a vital ecological role. Slugs are part of that great army of decomposers, critters who consume plant matter, fungi, lichen, and other organic matter (including dead animals and the dog food on your patio) and turn it into soil. They do so by grinding their food with the help of an astonishing set of 27,000 teeth. They’re also an important food source for snakes, lizards, frogs and toads, turtles, birds, and various insects.
Slugs are hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female genitalia, meaning they don’t necessarily need a mate to reproduce. However, they generally do reproduce sexually, with both partners often winding up pregnant. (Seriously, folks, you can’t make this stuff up.)
On a slug’s head are four tentacles. Two are for seeing and smelling and they operate independently, so a slug can gaze at you (or smell you) and a friend simultaneously. The other two are for touching and tasting. Just behind the head you’ll find a blowhole, through which the slug breathes, and the anus, through which…never mind.
As for slug slime, well, it’s pretty amazing goo. It’s actually a liquid crystal, a substance that’s somewhere between a liquid and a solid, and it can be both adhesive and lubricating, thereby enabling a slug to climb vertical surfaces and move effortlessly across flat surfaces. It also enables slugs to learn about each other and find potential mates.
Here in Oklahoma, the spotted leopard slug, originally from Europe, is the most common species found in area gardens. It’s also known as the giant garden slug. But whatever you call it, chances are you’ll want to get rid of it before it destroys your garden plants. And the simplest way to do that is with a concoction called – wait for it – Sluggo!
Sluggo is an organic product made of iron phosphate, and it’s the iron that’s toxic to slugs. It works pretty quickly, and is leaps and bounds safer to use than synthetic products containing metaldehyde, the active ingredient in older slug bait formulations, and more effective than beer traps.
And incidentally, although I happen to love escargots, those plump and delicious land snails, (especially when prepared au beurre d’ail Persillé-- with garlic and parsley butter), you should never even think of eating garden snails or slugs. They can harbor the rat lung worm, a nasty parasite that affects the brain and can be deadly.