Off the Press
July 12, 2011
By Laura Geggel
Slugs ooze to finish at slimy sprint
I found the slug underneath a garden pot housing a lemon-scented geranium. The slimy hermaphrodite didn’t stand a chance. I scooped it up in a Tupperware container filled with damp leaves and dirt, and left it outside on my porch where it would stay cool during the night.
The next day, I brought it to Issaquah’s annual Down Home Fourth of July slug race. Jenna Powell, an 11-year-old from Tennessee who was visiting her Sammamish cousin, crowded around the racetrack with the other children, trying to get a better view of the slugs.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said. “I’ve seen duck, frog and turtle races, but not a slug race.”
Before the competition, children presented their gastropod mollusks for the traditional beauty pageant — several slugs wore paper crowns and conical princess hats (all were winners, Salmon Days Festival organizer and slug race referee Robin Kelley said).
It was a hot day to race, let alone to be a slug, but all eight of them revved up their slime machines the moment they were placed on the circular racetrack.
The first slug to reach the outer circle of the target sign won, and that honor fell on Slimy, a leopard slug uncovered by Clark Elementary School student Hannah Prouty, who went slug hunting by her playhouse.
“This is the first time I entered the slug race, so I’m surprised I won,” she said.
She shouldn’t have been too surprised. The bigger the slug, the faster it goes, Seattle Tilth Children’s Education program coordinator Jessica Heiman said.
Slimy was about six inches long, a giant compared to the tiny one-inch slug I found in my garden.
The race could have gone even faster if the racecourse had been wet.
“Their slime moves better when it’s damp or when it’s a wet surface,” Heiman said. “Their slime is what helps their locomotion. When they contract and release their muscles, they move because of the slime.”
I’ll admit that slime is one of the first associations I have with slugs, and it’s not exactly something I find endearing. But it turns out slime is vital to slugs’ survival.
David George Gordon, author of “The Secret World of Slugs and Snails: Life in the Very Slow Lane,” and a University of Washington science writer, said slugs use slime for many things, including leaving chemical signals for other slugs or snails.
What are they trying to say? Basically, their slimy trail communicates whether there is food to share, or whether this is conquered territory, and other slugs and snails better stay away.
Their eggs typically hatch in the early spring, and “their first order of business is to eat and grow,” Gordon said.
All of those baby slugs make a great meal for the surrounding wildlife, including centipedes, beetles and birds. Some chickens even like to munch on snails, a vitamin boost since their shells contain calcium.
The 2011 racing winner, Slimy the leopard slug, might be fast, but it isn’t native. Many slugs arrive as stowaways on plants and then begin gobbling as many decaying vegetation and tender shoots as they can. The banana slug, a Northwest native, lives in the forest and typically doesn’t devour people’s gardens.
Named for its long, yellow appearance, the banana slug can reach 10 inches and weigh a quarter of a pound.
Like all slugs, the banana slug has a tongue covered with thousands of tiny teeth. To take a bite of foliage, it clamps down with its jaws, saws away with the toothy tongue and gulps down the food for digestion.
Both Gordon and Heiman asked that gardeners be kind to slugs, and either practice catch-and-release or thread copper tape around flowerpots (the metal gives them a mild electrical shock).
“I think the slug race is a great idea,” Heiman said. “I think anytime those marginalized creatures can get some attention is a good thing. They’re so vilified and that’s not the way the world works. We have to understand creatures.”
Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.