By Stéphane Perron and Marie-France Dubois
One of the most frequent summer wildlife sightings in Whistler has to be the banana slug. Banana slugs ( Ariolimax columbianus ) cant be identified solely by colour. Although they can be bright yellow (hence, along with their banana shape, the common name), in Whistler they are anywhere from waxy white to dark black and all forms of greens and Halloween candy browns in between. They sometimes have dark spots or blotches. The best way to identify a banana slug is by the keel (ridge) that runs from the end of the tail to the mantle (the flap covering the top of the body behind the head).
Banana slugs love to eat. Mushrooms are their favourite food but they eat almost anything. They will munch on both living and decaying plants, fruits, seeds, bulbs, lichen, animal droppings (very convenient around the Valley Trail ) and animal carcasses. Because they prefer the menu offered on dense forest floors, banana slugs seldom visit gardens. Banana slugs will eat garden plants if given no choice, but the reputation for raiding gardens and causing extensive plant damage belongs to non-native European slugs, like the giant garden slug ( Limax maximus ) and chocolate arion ( Arion rufus ), both of which have a pebbly, usually black, skin.
If you take time to observe a banana slug, notice its breathing port on the right side of its body, behind the head, and how it opens and closes. Yes, slugs have a lung, and the breathing port is what protects it. Also notice its tentacles. There are two sets. The upper, longer pair are the eyes which cant do much more then gauge light intensity. The lower ones are sensory organs for feeling and smelling. Smell is a slugs strongest sense to find food.
A noteworthy characteristic of slugs is their slime. All parts of the body have slime producing glands. Some produce thick, sticky slime, which protects the slugs body from rough surfaces and prevents its dehydration. It can also be used as defense. When a slug is threatened it produces a lot of thick slime and contracts into a near-ball shape, which makes it difficult to attack. Predators in Whistler include salamanders, newts, crows, ducks, shrews, moles, raccoons, snakes, and dogs.
Another type of slime produced in the foot is thin, and thats the one that leaves the "slime trail" you see on the Valley Trail early in the morning. Slugs can apparently lower themselves from high places (and I would love to witness this), hanging from a thin slime "cord" produced at their tail ends.
Slugs lay clutches of up to 30 eggs in holes and crevices where the ground is moist. The eggs take three to eight weeks to hatch. The mortality rate for the eggs is high due to predation from birds and mammals. Banana slugs seldom reach old age but their natural lifespan is estimated at three to six years, based on other land slugs.
Banana slugs play an important role in cleaning up the forest floors and in dispersing seeds and spores. Their droppings are also a valuable source of nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Our forests would be a poorer place without banana slugs.
How about writing a NatureSpeak Column?
Consider trying your hand at writing a column; we are always looking for new articles to run. We welcome contributions on any nature topic. E-mail articles and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.