Pikes/Pines: Pondering the pulmonates of Capitol Hill

A brown garden snail I found around my home. No snail was harmed in the taking of this photo

A brown garden snail I found around my home. No snail was harmed in the taking of this photo

Admit it. When you saw this post, you thought: “Gross.” However, I can also assure you that while alien and slimy, these invertebrates are worth pondering.

Truthfully, slugs and snails are slow, slimy, and many are hellbent on eating our plants. However before you get on your high horse, recognize this: many types of pulmonates (slugs and snails) have been sliding about, relatively unchanged, for hundreds of millions of years, through many a catastrophic event. Homo sapiens, as a single species, can only claim the geological millisecond of the last 160,000 years or so. So simmer down.

Pulmonates also have a large number of attributes you didn’t know about. They have hundreds of teeth, can be carnivorous predators (unflinchingly cannibalistic even), and are hermaphroditic. Some slugs can even jump (in response to a threat).

In the Pacific Northwest, there are far more native slugs than snails. Snails appreciate the sogginess, but they require something our remnant volcanic soils are poor in, calcium. Without calcium, snail shells are often not appropriately robust.

Capitol Hill likely lacks most, if any, native pulmonates, but if you did find a banana slug, don’t squish it. They aren’t the cause of plant damage in your yard, they’re more interested in other fare. That said, we’ve plenty of non-natives. They’ve arrived accidentally, on nursery plants or in nook and crannies of shipments. They’ve also been purposely introduced to the United States, by European immigrants yearning for escargot. (This partially explains their voracity for many of our favorite, European plants.)

Slugs are happy to eat many things, including fungi

Slugs are happy to eat many things, including fungi

David George Gordon, a local author, naturalist, and a proponent of entomophagy (insect eating), wrote the marvelous, “Secret World of Slugs and Snails: Life in the Slow Lane.” If you have any doubts about their fascinating world, you’ll undoubtedly appreciate his literary treatment and wry humor. I highly recommend going to see Gordon speak (check out his future speaking dates). He was gracious enough to talk with me about these critters at length.

Gordon would encourage looking beyond non-native pulmonates’ status as invasive pests, not only because they are interesting, but because there’s no evidence we can actually eliminate them (without poisoning everything else). Multiple studies have attempted and failed. You can however eliminate places for them to hide, line your garden beds with copper (it gives them an unpleasant low voltage shock), you can create beer traps for them to drown in, or you can even pay your children to run about the garden at night with a flashlight and dispatch them (as my parents did). You’ll never eradicate them altogether but you can control numbers. Gordon suggested that raking up leaf litter right now, exposing overwintering eggs, could help. This method reveals their eggs to predators and dries them out.

Pikes/Pines cannot tell all, or really much, about pulmonates, in one sitting. To try would be synonymous with attempting to do so with, say, birds. However, here’s a few common species to look for: Of slugs, I often find red-orange skirted, chocolate arions (arion rufus) and little, gray fieldslug (Derocerus reticulatum) about and Brown garden snails (Helix asperum) also seem relatively abundant in our environs. Look them up online, maybe find them in our yard, and hopefully you’ll see pulmonates in a slightly different light, even if it’s just before you dispatch them.

Previously in Pikes/Pines

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