The Science of Sustainability

Producer's Notes: Science on the SPOT – Banana Slugs Unpeeled

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QUEST treks into the old growth redwood forest in search of the Pacific Banana Slug, Ariolomax dolichophallus.

The slow, small, but quite vibrant life on the forest floor can often go completely unnoticed as we hustle and bustle past on our hiking trips, picnics or family outings.  Often times the little world on the ground is misinterpreted as insignificant. If noticed at all, a mushroom, snail or salamander might only capture our interest for a short while before the pull of seeing something new draws us away.  Patience is not a trait most of us humans possess enough to truly appreciate the goings on in the tiny world of the seemingly unhurried.


A common misconception then is people just aren’t that interested in things that are little, sluggish and quiet. They want big, fast and ferocious! In the wildlife film world we see many movies about lions, cheetahs, grizzly bears, wolves or elephants.  Heck, one cable channel devotes an entire week each year just on sharks.  This isn’t a bad thing.  The charismatic mega-fauna and the world they inhabit fascinate us.  It’s natural.  But taking the time to discover the small world beneath our feet can have its benefits as well.  And looking down through a different lens can provide some wonderful little surprises- a cluster of convergent ladybugs beneath a fallen leaf, redwood sorrel opening with the shade, or a spinning spider’s elaborate web catching a breeze in the glistening sun.  There is a whole community of life under each rock, little gems left for those who are careful and take the time.

It is for this that we set out on our adventure into the misty redwood canopy in hunt of a slug – The Pacific banana slug to be exact.  They are not fast but can be surprisingly elusive.  Belonging to the genus Ariolomax, there are three main species of banana slugs; columbianus, californicus and dolichophallus, – as well as two other known subspecies.  Most banana slugs live in the temperate rainforests and fog-zones of the Pacific Coast.  Banana slugs’ size, shape and coloring reflect their name as most tend to be long and yellow, some having brown or black spots.  However, they can also be light-brown, greenish, perhaps black, or even white. They are the second largest slug in the world and can grow up to ten inches long.  Banana slugs serve an important role in the forest ecosystem.  Feeding on detritus, (fallen leaves, mushrooms and even dead animals) they recycle nutrients and help replenish the soil

Since the banana slug is the official mascot of UC Santa Cruz, it seemed only fitting that we explore the mountains near campus for our quarry.  The particular species in those parts is Ariolomax dolichophallus, which, as we learn in our story, stands out among other slugs in a number of different ways.

Most people think slugs are kinda icky. And who wants to see a slow slimy boring slug anyway?  Capturing the true character, movement and, yes, beauty of the slugs is a challenge.  Luckily, QUEST has an expert in our ranks.  Prior to joining the QUEST team, Associate Producer Joshua Cassidy gained a lot of experience portraying the life and beauty of the creatures and places that are often overlooked.  In his award-winning film Life By The Tide, Josh was able to show the surprisingly vibrant life hidden among the small tide pools of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

Josh took his experiences in the tide pools out into the forest on our hunt for slugs. Filming a sea star slowly crawling down a mussel bed has a lot of similarities to capturing a banana slug moving up a tree trunk. “One advantage to shooting these creatures is they’re not going to fly or run away,” says Josh.  “But it will get startled and you can see that with the banana slugs.  But in order to get a good shot, you have to get close.   So, often I’ll set up in front of the animal and anticipate where it is going to go.  It takes patience and you get failed shots but you get pretty good at predicting how they are going to move.”  Josh says another key to getting a great shot is a willingness to get down on your belly in the mud.  “Something like a banana slug from a human’s eye level, say 5 feet, doesn’t look like it’s moving- doesn’t look like it’s doing very much at all.  But if you get down to the slug’s eye level and fill your frame, you see a lot more motion and activity.”  “We used a close-up filter, which is basically a magnifying glass, which allows you to get really close and pick up great detail and the unusual anatomy… As if you were another banana slug running into this gentleman.”

Through the lens of Josh’s camera we see the forest floor come alive.  And through his patience we can see the life of a banana slug in a whole new light.

See Josh’s film “Life By The Tide” or watch a shortened version of it here on QUEST TV, in a new feature called “Your Videos On QUEST.”

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Category: Biology, Environment

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Chris Bauer

About the Author ()

Chris Bauer is a Freelance Media Producer with over 20 years experience working in broadcast television; producing sports, history, technology, science, environment and adventure related programming. He is a two-time winner of the international Society of Environmental Journalists Award for Outstanding Television Story and has received multiple Northern California Emmy Awards. Some of his Quest stories have been featured in the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, United Nations Association Film Festival, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and the Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC. A 5th generation Bay Area resident and a graduate of St. Mary's College of California, his hobbies include canoeing, snowboarding, wood-working and trying to play the ukulele. He and his family live in Alameda, CA.