Attack of the Slugs: Alaska’s Worst Nightmare
The real European Black Slug, however, is not as frightening. Their tacky slime is as bad as it gets.
So, what do you have to do to get a group of high school kids excited about slugs? Not much, surprisingly.
After we set up camp along a meadow, above a rocky beach, I introduced the students to the importance of biodiversity through food webs. All the students were familiar with primary producers, primary and secondary consumers, and decomposers. Then I added how invasive species can throw an ecosystem off balance by asking the students to play a game of tag called “Dodge the Invaders.”
The goal of the game was for the native species to latch onto each other in an intricate web without getting tagged by the invasive species. A food web of three or more species deters an invasive species like the Emerald Ash Borer from tagging the White Ash. The kids had fun running around the beach trying to either tag or avoid being tagged by another. Most importantly, they all understood why biodiversity was significant to the wilderness and why they were going to spend the next three days counting and picking slugs.
Our goal was to help Tim Lydon of the US Forest Service get an idea of how far the slugs have spread from a set-net cabin in Eshamy Bay. We set out along the shore conducting 200 meter transects. For a lot of the kids it was their first time learning how to use a compass to set a bearing and record information on a datasheet. I could tell they took a lot of pride in what they were learning and the work they were doing. The notes I got back on some of the data sheets were thorough and some were just really funny.
We counted a total of 94 slugs on our transect studies, but picked up a whole lot more on our off times around camp and when the students went out paddling. One night, I was awoken by one of the students saying “We found more slugs!” I so enjoyed their enthusiasm.
With their enthusiasm came a lot of questions. As a slug novice I did my best to answer them from what I’ve read of Tim Lydon’s report and Erica Gaeta’s protocol of last year’s survey.
Student: Where do the slugs come from and how did they get here? The slugs are native to Europe. As to how they got here, it’s anyone’s guess. I’ve read that they were transported through potting soil. Nancy remarked that bilge water from across the ocean is sometimes dumped on the other side of the ocean. That could’ve been a really good way for these slugs to get across.
S: What are the holes on the side of their bodies? Well, it’s not their eyes. Their eyes, or “eyestalks” are their antennae and how they sense their surroundings. Those holes are actually how they breathe.
S: Can we eat them? Nope.
S: Can we keep them as a pet? Also, nope. We don’t want to introduce these species anywhere else in Alaska.
S: Do they harm the environment? It’s uncertain what impact they have on the wilderness in Prince William Sound. They seem to have taken a liking to munching on Skunk’s Cabbage, but as of now more research needs to be undertaken to understand their impact.
S: Are they poisonous? Yes.
S: Really?? Nope.
Fun fact! Banana slugs are an invasive species in parts of Europe, but are native to southeastern Alaska. So somehow, we got their slugs and they got ours.