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The Fantastic World of Slugs

How much do you know about slugs? Probably not much! Do not fear, we have two slug experts on campus! Dr. Amy Blair and Dr. Brenda Peters in the Biology Department have spent the past 12 years exposing and educating their students to the world of slugs. 

Dr. Amy Blair and Dr. Brenda Peters pose with some slugs that they have collected. Photo courtesy Laura Meloy.

“Everyone should be fascinated by living creatures. These guys that you just walk over actually have an interesting story to tell from a biological perspective. They’re hermphadites, and they have crazy sex. They will bother your flowers in your yard, so a lot of people know slugs because they harm their agriculture or veggie crops,” Blair said. 

Blair further explained the process of slug reproduction which is a lot more complicated than one might think. 

“They’re hermaphrodites, so they have both female and male parts. The male parts become very entwined in this elaborate mating process. They exchange sperm with each other and they both go on to become moms and lay eggs with the other slug sperm,” Blair said. 

While slugs have both female and male sex parts, Peters tells why the slugs don’t just self-fertilize to reproduce. 

“They can self-fertilize, but the reason they don’t self-fertilize is because they get that new genetic information. This allows them to continue to adapt, while if they are self-fertilizing they are self cloning and if the environment were to change, they wouldn’t survive that because they don’t have that adaptation,” Peters said.

Peters expanded upon the importance of not only studying slugs but just stepping back from the daily nuances of the world and really honing in and appreciating the living world around us. 

“One of the things that we don’t do anymore as a society is just watching something for a while. Students gain an appreciation that the world is made of all levels of things and some seem insignificant,” Peters said. 

You may be wondering, “Why did Blair and Peters get invested in slugs?” 

“I realized that slugs could be driving plant populations. We started trying to think about what slugs are eating, and a lot of people don’t know because not a lot of research has been done. How do slugs impact seed dispersal? And the more I learned about them, the more fascinated I became because they’re actually really interesting little creatures,” Blair said. 

Aside from slugs being fascinating creatures, they are often confused with a snail. Blair explained the main difference between the two. 

“The big difference between a snail and a slug is that a slug is missing it’s shell. And there are even some families between the two that even have a partial shell which of course tells us that this was an evolutionary adaptation. Because we tend to look at those lineages,” Blair said. 

This evolutionary adaptation allows for snails to live in different climates. Blair explains the advantage that slugs have over snails. 

“Having a shell requires a lot of calcium. Freeing yourself of that shell is suddenly like woohoo! I can live in places where there isn’t calcium, but now I’m super prone to desiccation [drying out]. So, they have to be super careful when they come out. Peak slug hunting would be at 10pm at night, they love it when it’s really gooey out there,” Blair said. 

Dr. Amy Blair holds an Arion subfuscus to the camera. Photo courtesy Laura Meloy.

Peters expanded upon the importance of a wet climate for slugs by explaining an ongoing research project with a student. 

“A student of mine, Colin Link, is doing a research project and we went slug hunting and we found nothing because it was so dry. But then, we got that nice rainy week and he’s gone twice and he’s up to over 100 slugs,” Peters said. 

After finding the slugs, they utilize them in various ways. Peters described the research project her student, Colin Link is working on. 

“Colin is going to attempt to age the slug’s brain and see how they will react to conditioning. So, he’s gonna try to prevent them from going into the dark which they’re drawn to and see which one learns better. Just another clue to solving some of our bigger mysteries of memory and Alzheimer’s. So, he’s gonna use a particular compound that could theoretically cause dementia. They have big neurons and think just like we do on a primitive level,” Peters said. 

To do these research projects, Blair and Peters take their students on “slug hunts” to obtain slugs for not only research but also for their classes. 

“Usually, it’s the beginning of April, so it can be anywhere from freezing cold to freezing rain to a beautiful sunny day. We go near Junge Park, it’s really just an exercise and patience. Looking through leaf litter and bark and fallen logs, so rolling them over and see if you can find anything,” Peters said.

Currently, Blair is taking a sabbatical to work on a research article they are hoping will get published. 

“We co-mentored a student 2 years ago who studied citric acid as a potential molesquite, which deters or kills slugs. He found pretty cool evidence that citric acid will deter them on lettuce because the slug is less likely to eat it, and if you put citric acid on a paper towel, it eventually kills a majority of them,” Blair said. 

After all of this hard work and research, someone might think, “Why not study something else?” Peters explains why they have stuck to slugs for so many years.

“Amy and I keep talking about taking breaks from slugs but it’s hard to do because students talk about it and look forward to it. And they do like going off-campus, and I wish there were ways to do it in all of our classes. It’s really nice for students to form relationships with each other and the instructors which is a really positive experience,” Peters said. 

If you are interested in learning more about slugs, consider majoring in biology! Or schedule a meeting with Dr. Blair or Dr. Peters to see what classes you need to take in order to go slug hunting. At the very least, watch this famous David Attenborough video to watch two slugs making love.