July 5 – Changing Its Spots

Today’s factismal: The leopard slug (Limax maximus) can be trained to associate unpleasant odors with good food and vice versa.

When you think of training animals, odds are that a leopard slug isn’t what you have in mind. But, just as circus lions can be trained out of eating their tamer, a leopard slug can be trained to associate specific smells with specific foods. This is important because it tells us something about how learning began, evolutionarily speaking; it is also important because it explains why food traps for slugs don’t always work.

A leopard slug (smaller than real life) (Image courtesy OPAL)

A leopard slug (smaller than real life)
(Image courtesy OPAL)

But why would anyone want to trap a leopard slug? Simply because they don’t belong here; they are native to Europe and were probably accidentally introduced sometime in the late 1860s. Since they were first spotted in Philadelphia in 1867, they have spread to 27 different states where they make a living eating other slugs and young crops (even slugs need roughage). Because they graze the seedlings to the ground and can eat faster than the seedlings can grow, they have become a major agricultural pest doing millions of dollars worth of damage every year.

Despite their size (their scientific name even means “big ol’ slug”) and stunning pattern of black spots on a brown skin, the leopard slug is remarkably hard to see. That’s because they are most active at night, when most slug hunters are in bed. And that’s why many farmers rely on food traps to capture and kill the slugs. Unfortunately, slugs can learn. So a food trap that just makes the slug sick can teach it not to go near that sort of food again. As a result, there is a lot of research into the habits and habitats of leopard slugs.

Which brings us to the point of this post: the good folks at the Open Air Laboratory need brave slug hunters to locate and identify leopard slugs! As part of their Bug Count (yes, I know that slugs aren’t bugs – take it up with them), they are looking for reports on leopard slugs and five other critters. If you’d like to take part, then slide on over to:

2 thoughts on “July 5 – Changing Its Spots

  1. Pingback: July 31 – You Otter Know – Little facts about science

  2. Pingback: July 31 – You Otter Know | Little facts about science

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