Life can move at a pretty fast pace out here in the Bay Area. It can also creep along slowly, especially up in the Santa Cruz Mountains ... and if you’re a Banana Slug.
The first time a Banana Slug ever crossed my mind was while watching the film Pulp Fiction; the first time one ever crossed my path was on Bear Valley Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore up in Marin County.
It wasn’t until I saw that glistening glob of yellow sliming its way across the trail that I grasped this connection between zoology and popular culture.
In this area, many people embrace the Banana Slug. For example, the indigenous coastal Yurok Indians used the slugs as a source of protein—as did many of the early German settlers. Today, the annual Russian River Banana Slug Festival is held in its honor (with slug races and a slug cook-off).
In 1986, the students at University of California-Santa Cruz voted Sammy the Slug the school’s official mascot. Since then, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Readers’ Digest and the National Directory of College Athletics have all voted it the best nickname and mascot.
In 1988, a group of eight-year-old schoolkids tried (as part of their club's civics project) to get legislation passed to designate the slug as California's official state mollusk. Unfortunately, the bill (which passed the House) was squashed in the Senate like so many slugs underfoot on the misty trails of the Peninsula.
The Banana Slug—an air-breathing land slug in the genus Ariolimax—is found primarily in damp, coniferous forests along the Pacific Coast from southern Alaska to northern California.
The first thing you notice when you see one is its color.
Most are bright yellow and some have dark spots (not unlike the ripening spots on an actual banana). Another surprising sight is the Banana Slug’s size.
Much larger than the slugs that aggravate home gardeners, these can grow up to 10 inches long and weigh a quarter pound. That’s a LOT of slug.
On closer inspection, you’ll see that Banana Slugs have an odd hole on their right side. It’s called a pneumostone and it serves as an opening to the slug’s lungs.
The slug also features two pairs of tentacles on its head—a large pair that serves as its eyes (detecting brightness of light) and a smaller pair that helps it detect objects and scents.
Both pairs can be retracted in an instant if the slug feels threatened. The mouth is situated between the lower tentacles and is equipped with a radula, a tongue-like organ covered with many tiny teeth that are used to grind up leaves, dead plant material, fungi and animal droppings. They’re also used during mating.
Like most slugs, the Banana Slug is hermaphroditic. While it’s capable of self-fertilization, it more often mates with others. Sloooooooowly.
This several-hour mating marathon involves the slugs creeping along (usually at night), leaving behind chemicals in their slime trails, which they then eat. The slugs then extend their proportionately gigantic penises (which, oddly enough, are attached to their heads).
They then exchange sperm, which fertilizes up to 20 eggs internally. These eggs are deposited under leaves or logs.
Often after mating, the slugs gnaw off each other’s penises (it’s unclear whether they ever regenerate) and slime along on their merry way for the remainder of their seven-year life expectancy.
I must admit that I’ve developed somewhat of a fascination for the Banana Slug. Whenever I’m up in the redwoods and see one, I like to stop and watch or photograph its slimy charm. I’ll never eat one—although I have found a recipe (see below) and have read they taste somewhat like snails (their zoological cousins).
More than likely, I’ll just get myself a UC-Santa Cruz t-shirt.