Banana Slugs are so-named because they look like overripe bananas – bright yellow with brown spots. Up to 25 centimeter long, they’re almost as big as bananas – maybe petite bananas – and that makes them the second biggest slugs in the world. The first one I ever saw, scooching its way across an uneven terrain of grass, pine duff, and leaves, looked like a dog turd. A really sick, sloppy, olive-green don’t-step-on-that dog turd. I couldn’t figure out where the dog might be, way out here miles from anywhere in the woods along Washington’s Hammersley Inlet. And then the poop moved. I took pictures with my phone.
Everybody loves Banana Slugs. No – they do. UC Santa Cruz chose the Banana Slug as its mascot. Without looking, I’m sure there’s more than one Twitter account with a Banana Slug tweeting away about how awesome it is to be slimy and hermaphroditic. I for one wouldn’t mind being able to breathe through my skin. Banana Slugs move pretty slowly though – like, six inches a minute – so there’s that. And it begs to be told (if you don’t already know, you hipster Banana Slug fan, you) that they’re known to engage in some pretty gruesome post-coital behavior: ahem, a Banana Slug will gnaw off its own penis once the deed is done. Don’t judge.
Terrestrial gastropods like Banana Slugs also have tongues with teeth (called radulas – toothy rasps used for scraping up the good bits to eat), two pairs of tentacles for seeing and smelling, and a lung that opens up to the air for breathing.
The Banana Slug that I almost stepped on was Ariolimax columbianus, quite at home as a native of the Pacific Northwest’s coastal rainforests. Apparently one of the best ways to differentiate the three different species of Ariolimax is by comparing penises (pre-chewed, one would assume). I did not, however, have any basis for comparison in that regard, so my best guess is columbianus.
They like to creep along the forest floor, munching on dead leaves, animal scat, and other goodies. This is when that radula comes in handy. Banana Slugs are the detritivores, the ones who clean up after the rest of us like organic street sweepers, spreading seeds and spores around and making new soil, new life, out of death and decay. Also they love mushrooms, which makes them gourmands.
Raccoons, snakes, and ducks love to gulp slugs, which isn’t too surprising when you consider that human beings love mollusks too, like mussels and oysters. The Yurok ate Banana Slugs, and today there’s even a Banana Slug Festival every year along California’s Russian River, where the principal goal of the culinary contest seems to be trying to make slugs at most palatable. The challenge continues, as does the animal rights controversy. Raccoons have solved this problem – the icky taste of Banana Slug slime – by tossing the slugs around in dirt and duff, possibly like rolling a chocolate truffle in powdered cocoa. But different.
Nothing wrong with different, when you’re essential to an ecosystem. We need slugs. And they’re not pests – the garden slugs that eat vegetable crops are actually an invasive species called European Black Slugs. I know why everybody thinks Banana Slugs are cool. They’re not beautiful, but…they are. They’re part of everything else, just like us.