The Science of Slug & Snail Slime

Snails and slugs have an extremely porous body. They absorb moisture from their environment but can also rapidly be left in trouble on a hot sunny day with no shelter to be found for meters. In an attempt to avoid desiccation, or drying up, slugs and snails produce something that is better than liquid gold. For a slug that is. Mucus! While mucus may be something we as humans shy away from, for snails, it is the reason they are able to move around so, um, let’s say “effectively.” It is also how they are able to seemingly defy gravity with their climbing feats, and how they leave love letters for potential mates.

Snail mucus is produced by glands in the foot, the body of the animal, and has properties making it similar to both a lubricant and a glue. As they move, the secreted mucus creates a gliding surface for the creature, they use the muscles in their foot to push themselves along. Once they are moving, it doesn’t take too much effort to continue their glide! On top of this, the mucus they secreted has the additional benefit of leaving a trail brimming with pheromones. These pheromones can be smelled by others of their species, and used to find mates.

This miracle mucus happens to be strong enough to anchor them onto surfaces, allowing them to climb up trees, glass, patio furniture, you name it. If they are in fear of dessication, snails can create a plug of mucus to block their shell from evaporation. This can keep them safe for months at a time until they are reintroduced to hydration.

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While leaf litter filled forests are a perfect place to find these slimy wonders, even for those surrounded by buildings, slugs and snails can be found if you know when to look. Rainy days of course provide the necessary incentive for these mucusy friends, but a bonus to being a morning person is that you may be more prone to encountering a snail or slug making their way somewhere damp in the mornings! As the rising sun brings an air of warmth, the last straggling creatures of the night begin their progression into their daytime abodes. Night holds a dampness, and a safety from the drying sun that gives respite to creatures whose moisture is of high importance.

Gastropods, the “stomach-foot” animals, include a few well-known creatures: the slugs and snails, along with their marine counterparts; limpets; whelks and nudibranchs. In many cases, snails and slugs will spend time in gardens, whether snacking on freshly grown vegetation, or aiding in the decomposition of dead plant material. Even if you miss seeing their tentacle laced face, you may be fortunate enough to see evidence of their visits through slime trails and tiny bites out of your plants. Gastropods are one of the most diverse groups of animals, second only to insects. Vancouver Island is home to many charismatic slugs and snails, including the second largest in the world, the banana slug. Despite its name, you do not want to eat these creatures. They can contain parasites that can cause severe damage. In any case, their texture is much less appealing than that of an actual banana!

Banana slugs have graced the presence of many Vancouver Islanders on their travels, although few are lucky enough to spot one of Vancouver Islands aptly named jumping slugs. Dromedary and Warty jumping slugs are extremely rare creatures that have little known about them. The dromedary jumping slugs for example, are only found on Vancouver Island, and only seven spots on the Island have been confirmed as known locations for them! While they may physically not be able to launch themselves off the ground in the same way that humans, kangaroos or rabbits are able to jump, they can thrash their body rapidly and sporadically to try to deter predators. I don’t speak for the predators of the forest, but I have to say that a thrashing slug does seem less consumable than a slug who has simply shrunk their body into itself as a defense.

While they may seem to be creatures of little importance, terrestrial, or land based, gastropods fill an important place on the food chain. They provide nutrients for many birds in particular, robins and thrushes. Snails especially, are excellent at taking calcium from their environment and utilizing it in the growth of their shell. This is important as all of their predators will be gaining calcium as well, which is especially important during breeding season! When observing snails and slugs in your garden, or signs of slugs taking a nibble from your leafy greens, I urge you to resist the urge to use pesticides. All chemicals that we add to the environment have unintended consequences for our natural neighbors. Even if slugs are not your favorite critters, consider the potential ill effects pesticides can have further up the food chain, or on invertebrates that you gladly welcome into your garden. If you want the birds and butterflies, you have to accept the snails and the slugs as well.

Rather than dwell on their slimy, perhaps uninvited presence, take the time to observe them! Leave your blinds open tonight and aim to awaken with the sun. Sit outside in your garden as the sunny tendrils urge snails to hasten away to the damp undergrowth, or carefully walk around your neighborhood until you find one of these friends. Simply watch them. May the March of the Slugs encourage you to use your senses in exploration, follow trails laid by those before you and take…it…slow.