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10 Slippery Facts About Slugs

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Slugs get bad press. Okay, they’re cold and slimy and sometimes eat your kale, but there’s so much more to them. They exude a liquid crystal, they have sex while dangling from a thread, and one time they beat a charismatic mammal in a dramatic popular vote.

1. SLUG OR SNAIL? IT’S A SPECTRUM.

People tend to call something a slug if it looks like a snail but has no shell. However, many distantly related critters among the gastropods—the group that contains snails and slugs—have independently evolved a sluggy, shell-free shape. So there’s no single, evolutionarily distinct slug lineage. To make things more complicated, a lot of slugs secretly do have shells—they’re just hidden within the slugs’ bodies.

And then there are the in-betweeners. So-called semi-slugs have tiny shells on the outside of their bodies that are way too small for them to retract into. (Honestly, they look pretty ridiculous.)

2. SLUGS HAVE TENTACLES, BLOWHOLES, AND THOUSANDS OF TEETH.

If you want to dream up an alien species for the next big sci-fi blockbuster, start with slug anatomy. First, check out the tentacles. Slugs have four, and they’re retractable. Two are for seeing and smelling, and they can be operated independently: a slug can gaze at you (or smell you) and a friend simultaneously. The other two are for touching and tasting.

Slugs also have thousands and thousands of teeth. These tiny chompers are part of a rasping structure called a radula that’s unique to mollusks. And in case that doesn't seem weird enough, slugs essentially breathe through a blowhole that opens up on one side of their bodies. This round pore is called a pneumostome.

But that’s just the anatomy of land-living slugs. Sea slugs have their own incredible features. For example, some breathe using delicate feather-like gills that surround their butt holes, and they smell with neon-colored, bizarrely shaped protrusions called rhinophores.

3. WHEN ATTACKED, SOME SLUGS LOSE THEIR TAILS.

Melibe leonina from Santa Cruz. Image credit: Robin Agarwal via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s an ingenious strategy for escaping a hungry predator: Break off a small tasty part of your body, and leave it behind as you make your escape. Some slugs do this. The aptly named taildropper slugs, such as the reticulated taildropper, can quickly amputate their own tails. And certain sea slugs have body parts that snap off safely and easily, leaving a would-be predator with a smaller, less desirable meal.

4. THEIR LOVE LIVES ARE ACROBATIC AND GORY.

Leopard slugs and their relatives will only mate when they’re dangling upside down from a thread of mucus. This position enables them to extend their gigantic, body-length penises and wrap them around each other. And yes, that’s penises plural: slugs have both male and female body parts.

And that’s just one example of surprising slug sex. The banana slug, a fixture of the Pacific Northwest, sometimes chews off its partner’s penis after mating. Then there’s the sea slug that removes its own penis post-sex and rapidly grows a new one. Another sea slug sets the mood by stabbing its partner in the head.

5. SLUG SLIME IS A LIQUID CRYSTAL.

Slugs are gooey and sticky, and they leave a trail of slime wherever they go. But that goo is pretty remarkable. It’s a liquid crystal, a substance that’s somewhere between a liquid and a solid. It flows a bit like a liquid, but at the molecular level, it’s more organized. It can be both adhesive and lubricating, and it actually slurps up water.

Why all the goo? Slug slime is multi-purpose. It helps these critters move and climb challenging surfaces. It also protects them from fungi and bacteria. Plus, slugs can learn about each other—and find potential mates—by examining slime trails. And, of course, mucus is a key part of a leopard slug’s daredevil upside-down sex life.

6. THEY CAN GET UP TO 30 POUNDS.

Some land-living slugs can get pretty large. Europe’s ashy-grey slug is 10 inches long. But that’s nothing compared to the sheer size of some sea slugs. Found in California, the black sea hare can reach nearly 40 inches and weigh 30 pounds.

7. SOME SLUGS ARE FIERCE PREDATORS.

Amgueddfa Cymru, National Museum Wales via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

Sure, many eat a salad-like diet of plants, mushrooms, and fruits, or chew up dead and rotting plants and sometimes even rotting animals. But others have a taste for living flesh. The ghost slug slurps up worms. The stunningly colored Spanish shawl (a type of sea slug) chows down on a particular marine creature called a hydroid, eating everything except the hydroid’s stinging cells, which the slug then uses for its own defense. The sea slug Pleurobranchaea californica eats other sea slugs, and it’s shown a remarkable ability to remember which species—like that stinging Spanish shawl—are no good to eat.

8. SOME SLUGS CAUSE TROUBLE.

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As people have spread across the globe, we’ve unintentionally introduced slug species into new locales. These slimy invaders lack natural predators in their new lands, so they flourish and even push out native slugs. The slugs that eat the veggies in your garden may very well be invaders, such as the Spanish slug or leopard slug—and that last species carries a parasite that can cause meningitis.

Slugs aren’t just spreading to new places on land, either. Ocean-going ships have also accidentally transported exotic sea slugs to new places.

And invasive slugs also cause trouble for other creatures. Some plants rely on ants to spread their seeds, and they reward the ants with a tasty treat called an elaiosome that’s attached to each seed. But invasive slugs can eat those treats before the ants find them.

9. SOME ARE IN TROUBLE.

Blue-grey Taildropper (Prophysaon coeruleum)

Only a few slug species are pests. Most are critical members of land and water ecosystems all around the world. And, like so many creatures, they’re suffering declines. One is the tiny and ridiculously colorful blue-grey taildropper of the Pacific Northwest. Another, the evocatively named snake skin hunter slug, is found in only a few spots in South Africa. Though these critters may not have the charisma of, say, a cheetah or a blue whale, they’re no less crucial to the health of ecosystems.

10. A SLUG IS THE SUBVERSIVE MASCOT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT SANTA CRUZ.

If you’re looking for a model of slug appreciation, take a look at UCSC. For a long time, students considered the banana slug, a gentle denizen of the area’s redwood forests, to be their unofficial mascot. Little did they know that their slug was in for a fight.

In 1980, UCSC entered the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The university needed an official mascot—and some officials wanted a fiercer, sportier, and more traditionally charismatic species. A group of athletes proposed the sea lion, and it became the mascot. But other students refused to embrace the new choice. They continued to shout “Slime 'em!” and “Go slugs!” at basketball games. A fierce debate erupted, resulting in national media coverage. Finally, the matter was put to rest with a 1986 school-wide vote. Slug supporters slid into first place with an overwhelming five-to-one victory.

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Ted Cranford
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science
Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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