Into every slug’s life a little rain must fall – they are not very fond of dry weather. Unlike snails, they have no mobile “home” to go into. They have been lucky lately, as after a pretty dry April and May, June and July have been very wet here in Wales.
I have been watching this slug for weeks – or maybe it has been a different slug every day. It has this habit of climbing up the bird table every night and by morning it is slurping all over the dangling block of bird fat.
The birds ignore it and carry on feeding next to it – clearly it’s not very tasty, or maybe just too big to tackle.
I have no idea how it gets back down again. Does it climb down the way it came? Does it just let go and hope for a soft landing? Or maybe it dangles on a string of mucus, a mollusc abseiler. I see from Wikipedia that this particular species of slug (Limax maximus) does use a string of its own strong sticky stuff when it mates. Slugs are hermaphrodite (both male and female organs in one body).
The mucus keeps the slug moist and helps lubricate its way over the ground. It also leaves a trail for other like-minded slugs, can leave a nasty taste in the mouths of would-be predators and can make it so slippery the predator can’t hold on to it in the first place.
For more on the many species of slug, see Wikipedia.
Anyway, I have sometimes seen this slug (or another just like it) on the floor, and also creeping back into a crack between bricks under some garden steps.
There is so much to think about – identifying the species, identifying those tiny white parasites that swarm all over it, looking into the origins of the word “slug” and even a bit of mythology…
First the ID – surely this must be the magnificent leopard slug, Limax maximus. Great name for a gladiator… There is a good description of Limax maximus on this web page.
There is also a link on that page to a key to many of the different colourings and patterns available.
Do I mean available? Sorry, that sounds like you are buying a slug to match your decor!
Two things I did notice from the description – “the respiratory pore towards the posterior right of the mantle” and the fact that the mucus is clear.
This big slug doesn’t eat leafy plants but survives on garden mould – and has obviously acquired a taste for the soft, peanut-based bird fat, too.
I had to look elsewhere to identify the tiny white parasites rushing quickly around in the shiny slime all over the slug’s body.
They were examples of Riccardoella limacum, the slug mite, and you can read all about them here.
These mites were also swarming all over another, different-looking slug I photographed a few weeks ago.
On this occasion it was wandering in a very dry and rough-seeming area of sticks and stones so I picked it up, put it on a wall and splashed it with water, photographed it and put it somewhere lush and shady again.
Maybe at this point I should mention my post An apology to nature from my childhood self!
I have to admit I also intervened in the case of that slug hanging around on the bird fat. It was still there later when the bright, hot sun was blazing down and it showed no signs of moving.
It even started to go a bit hard and dry. So again I picked it up and put it somewhere shady. Maybe it would have been OK even if it had shrivelled in the sun, as long as it got water later. Anyone out there know?
I caught another species of slug in the garden just after I published this blog post – an Arion ater or “black slug”, although strangely the colour is variable and may even be white. In this case it was brown and some say it should be considered a sub-species to be called Arion rufus…
So, where did our word for slug come from? Maybe it comes from “sluggard” as it moves slowly around like a heavy, lazy person. If so, it seems to be similar to the Scandinavian languages – in Norwegian dialect slug means “a heavy body” and sluggje is “a slow heavy person”, while in Swedish slogga means “to be sluggish”.
It can surely be no coincidence that our slippery tongues are involved in forming words such as slug and slime and slobber – and sluggard. We instinctively know what to think of young wizards in the house called “Slytherin” (Harry Potter books) and aliens called the “Slitheen” (Doctor Who).
Here’s the word for slug in several European languages: limax (Latin) limace (French), lumaca (Italian), limaco (Spanish), babosa (also Spanish – baba means “slime” or “spittle” or “slobber”), lesma (Portuguese), Nacktschnecke (German, meaning “naked snail”), slak (Dutch), snigel (Swedish, but it also means “snail”).
In Welsh we have the word malwod (singular malwoden), meaning both slugs and snails and in the related Cornish language there is melhwenn or melhwesenn for “slug”. Not sure of the origins of that one.
There’s another word in Welsh for slug, too, gwlithen, which I think literally means “dewdrop”. There’s pretty… It can also be used for a girl’s name…
Talking of which, I often think of snails in relation to the Welsh legend of Olwen in the Mabinogion tales, whose name literally means “white-track”, as where she walked white trefoil sprang up. Although in the case of snails (and slugs) they leave a silver slime…
Finally a word on other meanings of “slug”…
The meaning of slug as “a piece of lead” dates from the 1620s, perhaps a reference to its slug-like shape? Its use as “a metal token” was first recorded in 1881.
Its meaning as “a mouthful of strong drink”, first recorded in 1756, maybe comes from the slang “fire a slug”, meaning “take a drink”, although that may also be related to the Irish word slog, “to swallow”.
Then there’s slug meaning “a hard blow”, first used as a noun in 1830 and a verb in 1862. Boxers sometimes “slug it out”. This could be related to words such as slaughter and slay.
Which brings us to the Irish word slaugh, meaning “war” or “army”. The Irish word gairm means “cry”. Put them together and you (eventually) have slogan (originally slughorn), once meaning a “war cry” but now used as “a political or advertising catch-phrase”.
And finally – here’s the result of all that dangling hermaphrodite copulation we saw above…
Talking of which, I’d like to link in to Esther Montgomery’s new post Snails do not burrow…