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Everything You Wanted to Know About Slugs, but Were Afraid to Ask

As you may remember from a previous column, my sister, Katie, lives near me on the Connecticut River and owns a bakery. About every two weeks she gets a delivery of sugar, oats, eggs and other baking products. On those days I usually go up to help her unload, as there are many heavy bags and boxes to carry, and it’s a tiring job, even with her employee helping.

This morning as I huffed in the door with a 50-pound bag of flour, I noticed a slug on her step. It was off to one side, so I simply remarked on it to Katie.

“Are you sure it’s not a snail?” she asked, bending to look at it.

“Yup,” I said, and then added, “I wonder why they don’t have shells.”

“There were slugs with shells in the garden of Eden,” she said, “and God told them not to eat the lettuce. But, of course, they ate the lettuce and to punish them God took away their shells.”

“Where did you hear that?” I asked. “Did you just make it up?”

“Yup,” she said.

“Maybe I should write an essay about slugs,” I said. “I mean, why are there slugs? Are they good for anything?”

At this point Allie, Katie’s employee, piped up. “I hate slugs,” she said.

‘Can I quote you? “ I asked.

“Yup,” she said.

Which leads me to ask, does anyone like slugs? I suppose people who study slugs like slugs, or perhaps admire them, or are enthusiastic about their various skills and adaptations, but the vast majority of people hate slugs. Slugs eat their tulips, makes smears on the steps and hide in the salad. For some reason whenever I think about Sylvia Plath, which is more often then you might imagine, I think of her laying out bowls of beer in which to drown the slugs that infested her farm in Devon. And slug is the favorite noun of those wishing to diss the lazy and unmotivated among us.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about slugs. Phylum Mollusk, Class Gastropoda, live on land and in the sea. Land living slugs thrive only in moist areas, hence their population explosion during rainy summers. Most have two sets of tentacles on their head, one pair for seeing and one for smelling. As they move they excrete mucous, which protects the “foot fringe” or “skirt.” Most retain a remnant of their shell, which is internalized. They are made up mostly of water and thrive on a broad spectrum of vegetation. Some are carnivorous. They provide food for a myriad of creatures: birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians and fish. They are hermaphrodites and have both male and female organs. Despite this, they do mate. During mating, apophallation sometimes occurs. Go to Wikipedia yourself for the indelicate details, which include complications that may lead to the loss of a sexual organ.

Wikipedia says a lot. But I still don’t know why slugs lost their shells. It seems like a foolhardy direction to take on the evolutionary path. Further exploration on the Internet reveals the answer. “The total shell loss that is seen in terrestrial slugs may be an adaptation to cope with a lack of calcium, and there is evidence that the original distribution of slugs was confined to low-calcium environments. Slugs do, nonetheless, have several major advantages over snails: in the absence of shells, not only do they economize on calcium, but they can crawl into tighter spaces, burrow more easily in search of prey, and distend their bodies to swallow large meals.” So it seems that, like some humans, they’ve learned a simple truth; while shells give the illusion of safety they are also a kind of prison.

The writer lives in Norwich.