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by Walter L. Meagher

Little affection is shown for these animals. ‘Yucky slimy slugs.’ Well, of course! Snails and slugs eat vegetable matter, dead or alive, and will continue to do so, surviving our poisons, as the war against them goes on. As naturalists, we are struck by their number: forty thousand of all molluscs are gastropods. Struck by how, over evolutionary time, gastropods (snails, slugs and other kinds of terrestrial molluscs) have radiated into so many habitats.


Radiation is a marker of time lapsed. Of snails alone, for example, there are species of shallow and still water, of deep lakes, riversides, marshes and mud flats, and species that burrow in sand and mud. Sea slugs occupy another domain. Wandering into new environments is of the essence of evolution, of hominids (who eventually wandered out of Africa) just as gastropods wandered into the leaf piles of Europe. 

These animals, like pill bugs, are part of the worldwide network of detritivores. Fresh vegetable matter is second choice. If one wants to keep these animals occupied, to protect your young cabbages, don’t rake all the leaves from the garden. Invest in a little untidiness. By preference, snails and slugs turn decaying vegetation into faeces (as pill bugs do too), which bacteria and fungi use for nutriment, and, in the process, take a giant step toward liberating a variety of molecules into the storage bin of the living soil.

Adapted from: The Natural History of Deddington Parish, due December 2009.     

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