A Banana Slug Meal
Santa Cruz County, CA

Although I have curiosity and respect for all forms of life, and I understand that each creature has importance in its ecological niche, some species are considerably less appealing than others. Slugs are one of those disagreeable animals. Usually small, clammy and drab, they are essentially houseless snails, lacking the ability to conveniently retreat out of sight into their shell.

In my huge strawberry patch long ago in Massachusetts, slugs were a frequent problem, especially after rain. They would amass a slimy army and feast on the sweet berry spoils, destroying much of our harvest. When we put out dishes of cheap beer – which they preferred over delectable strawberries – they would predictably drown themselves in the libation. I prayed it was a painless death for them.

The banana slug (Ariolimax columbianus), however, is a different kind of slug all together. These slugs have a real presence and make a bold statement. They even attract a kind of affection. “Sammy the Banana Slug” is the mascot of UC Santa Cruz. On my recent retreat, I encountered banana slugs frequently during my walks along the Vajrapani Peace Trail. I first became acquainted with banana slugs in 1972 when I arrived at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington from the East Coast. When I first told my mother about banana slugs she thought they were slugs found on imported bananas. When I was a kid, I worried about tarantulas hiding in banana bunches (schoolhouse urban legend) but not slugs.

While most slugs are no more than a couple inches long and slimmer than a pencil, banana slugs can stretch out to almost 10 inches. These monster slugs vary in color depending on the climate, food sources, light, elements and moisture. The ones in Santa Cruz county are a pleasing solid yellow; they really do look like the fresh fruit that they are named for. In Washington State, they were brown with black spots, imitating a seriously overripe banana. Sometimes they can be completely black, looking just like that rotten banana you completely forgot about in your backpack.

Below, you can see slugs munching away on small leaf growth. They eat forest floor detritus that includes plant material, fungi, feces, and sometimes animal carcasses. They explore with their four retractable head tentacles, the top two are for sight and the bottom two are for touch and taste. Food is taken in with the radula, a tongue-like body part covered in as many as 27,000 tiny teeth. Even more teeth than a shark but sized at a microscopic level. You may notice a hole in its body, seen only on its right side. It is for breathing into its single lung. Banana slugs are the second largest slug in the world and recorded as one of the slowest moving animals on planet Earth.

For those curious about gender variations and unusual sexual behavior in the more-than-human world, slugs are an interesting example. They are hermaphrodites, having both male and female organs. In a pinch, a banana slug can mate with itself and produce offspring. However, banana slugs prefer having a partner, an instinctual urge to diversify their gene pool. When they mate, after much wiggling and dancing and thrashing about (slowly), they impregnate each other with both penises, and then both go off to lay eggs in a crevice somewhere. I think if humans functioned as hermaphrodites there would be a lot less conflict in the world.

Sometimes – and a warning here that this might seem rather disturbing – after mating, banana slugs will eat each other’s penis. Sadly, it doesn’t grow back, but, fortunately, the slug can still mate again with its female sex organs. Scientists are not sure why they castrate each other but that behavior does have an official name, apophallation. Yes, the world of nature can be weird and icky.

Also, one last fun fact, banana slugs have one of the longest penises relative to body length in the entire animal kingdom.

All this strange banana slug information was just too fascinating to not include!

The Alternative Meaning to “A Banana Slug Meal”
I’ve always been interested in foods that can be foraged from the wild. So the question inescapably arises, can we eat bananas slugs? Apparently, so. The Yurok tribes in Washington record them as part of their diet, as well as some early European immigrants. I have not tried one myself yet. I don’t plan to unless there are major disruptions in our food supply chain.

The slug is mostly protein. But it must be cooked. (I should hope so.) One website suggested cooking it over a campfire like a hotdog. But I found another recipe on how to prepare them more properly for cooking by removing the significant body slime (which actually acts as an anesthetic to would-be predators.) The slugs are cut into bite sized chunks, breaded, then fried. Supposedly they compare favorably in taste and texture to calamari; not surprising, since both are in the mollusk phylum. Let me know if you cook one up!

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