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[whitespace] Slug and Woman
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Slug Scholar: Alice Bryant Harper, banana slug expert, knows that the groves of academe can be a dangerous place.

The Unexamined Life:

Why the banana slug is more appropriate than ever as UCSC's mascot

By Sarah Phelan

ANYONE WHO has spent time on UCSC's redwood-studded campus knows that there are absolutely no sea lions up there, unless you count the stone statues on Science Hill. Sure, Monterey Bay can be seen sparkling in the distance, but the campus itself squats 750 feet above sea level, atop a series of marine terraces that last saw salt water 3 million years ago. So why, in 1980, did UCSC select a marine mammal as its mascot, a choice it eventually reversed?

The answer is symbolism. Graceful and swift in water, sea lions aren't afraid to stand their ground on land, which they do so while barking loudly--enviable qualities in traditional colleges and athletic departments.

But traditional is hardly the word that comes to mind when describing UCSC's student body, which prides itself, among other things, on being iconoclastic and environmentally aware. Unwilling to identify with a whiskered pinniped, the students finally rebelled in 1986, demanding that the banana slug, a bright yellow hermaphroditic gastropod that frequents the redwood groves of academe, get the nod as their official mascot.

Then-Chancellor Robert Sinsheimer famously resisted this request. "As a symbol of our athletic ambitions, consider that the banana slug is spineless (ipso facto), yellow (cowardly), sluggish (slow of foot) and slimy (enough said)," he wrote in a April 1986 letter to City on a Hill.

After the students voted overwhelmingly in the lowly slug's favor, Sinsheimer reversed his position a mere month later--but not before taking a last stab at both slug and student body.

"As is well known, I would prefer a mascot with more spirit and vigor. However, the students are entitled to a mascot they desire and with which they can identify," Sinsheimer wrote. "I also suggest that it would be most desirable for our biological scientists to begin a program of genetic engineering research upon the slug, 'to improve the breed.' The potential seems endless."

Fifteen years later, when asked exactly what aspects of the slug he thought could use some GE-ing, Sinsheimer, who helped kick-start the Human Genome Project in 1985 and participated in UCSC's Human Genome Symposium 2001, explained that he was mostly being facetious, adding that "the campus athletes, as you might expect, would have preferred a mascot with more fighting spirit--which might be induced by genetic manipulation--but by now the slug has become a beloved mascot, which is fine."

More than just beloved, the banana slug has also become prophetic, at least symbolically, serving as an example of both the potential and the perils for biological entities and educational institutions of a condition known as gigantism. In the banana slug's case, the excess growth occurs in its genital structures. With a male organ often bigger than its body, a banana slug sometimes has to amputate its partner's organ in order for the species to survive. Indeed, ask any banana slug, and s/he will tell you that bigger isn't necessarily better.

The university's growth takes the form of unchecked sprawl through the redwoods the slugs call home. Although UCSC has become the town's giant, with a host of attendant problems, it has spent little time examining the life of its indigenous slug. That's unfortunate, because banana slugs offer some useful cautionary lessons for bureaucrats and biologists alike.

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Gastropodism: Almost everything we know we learned from banana slugs

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Garbage Crew

SIT UNDER ONE of UCSC's towering redwood trees, waiting for the fog to burn off, and you quickly notice how silent the forest is. Redwoods cast deep shade and shed tannin-loaded duff, a combination that inhibits plants and repels insects, leaving little for birds to sing home about.

But listen closely and you'll hear the slow drip-drip of condensed moisture as it falls from the branches above. All this misty moisture spells gastropod heaven. And though banana slugs appear to be gliding silently across the forest floor, preoccupied with slowly but surely getting somewhere else, they are in fact noisily engaged in the moment.

A vital part of the forest's cleanup and recycle crew, banana slugs scrape with their radula (a tongue coated with lots of rows of tiny teeth) just about every living and dead thing they encounter--with one notable exception.

Amateur scientist Alice Bryant Harper, author of The Banana Slug: A Close Look at a Giant Forest Slug of Western North America Forest, says banana slugs don't eat redwood tree seedlings, even when they're starving--which, when you think about it, makes perfect ecological sense. By knocking out the competition while avoiding chewing on these fledgling giants (whose tannin content makes them distasteful), banana slugs help protect the trees that create the foggy damp habitat that shell-less land mollusks crave.

Harper first assigned herself the project of studying banana slugs as "my salvation as a young mother in a log cabin in Ben Lomond over 30 years ago." In 1988, she published The Banana Slug (with photographs by her husband, Dan), now in its fourth printing. With 30,000 copies sold, this highly readable field guide is used by colleges in Portland but never by UCSC, where banana slugs rule.

"Without honor in my own land," laments a slightly hurt-sounding Harper, who knows as much about this land mollusk as anyone in banana slug country.

As it happens, UCSC could probably use her help. In 1982, its Environmental Field Program incorrectly identified UCSC's native banana slug as Ariolimax columbianus, in a publication titled The Natural History of the UC Santa Cruz Campus (which has yet to be revised), whereas the gastropod in question is actually Ariolimax dolichophallus.

As we watch three bright yellow banana slugs slime across the walls of a lettuce-filled fishbowl sitting on her coffee table, Harper explains that A. columbianus is sometimes spotted brown like an overripe banana, whereas A. dolichophallus is bright yellow and has a long male organ, as the name suggests.

"I have a number of banana slugs that sleep in the cracks of my front steps and emerge on foggy mornings," says Harper, pouring me a cup of tea, as one of the bright yellow slugs, apparently satiated on salad, checks out another slug.

Banana slugs' idea of foreplay, as I soon witness, involves nudging and biting each other, as well as eating each other's slime. "And they like to take their time," explains Harper, who once sat on a stool on her lawn until midnight watching a pair of courting slugs engaged in a bruising mating ritual that lasted 12 hours. Either way, both slugs are keeping their private parts to themselves, which is fine by me, given what typically happens next.

When slugs finally come together they form a yin-yang-like circle, where they remain motionless for hours, before deciding it's time to get back to their solitary lifestyle of cleaning up the forest floor.

And that's when the trouble begins. Banana slugs are so well endowed that sometimes one or both of the slugs cannot withdraw. "It appears the slug's retractor muscle isn't strong enough to pull out," says Harper, pouring me more tea, as I watch a slug slither along the lip of the fish bowl.

Perhaps it wants to escape any amorous approaches, which is understandable, given that love affairs, banana-slug style, seems doomed to end painfully. For as Harper soon explains, if after much struggling and writhing a pair of slugs can't disengage, one or both slugs may take what sounds like an agonizing and traumatizing step: chewing off the other's organ in a process known as apophallation.

Whether the thus Bobbitted but pregnant--with about 30 eggs each--slugs ever have sex again is a mystery, says Harper, who once tried to observe captive slugs in a makeshift lab until raccoons broke in and ate her specimens.

"Slugs don't appear to be in pain or to bleed after amputation, and people have observed slugs that continue to chew on the organ even after it's severed, which suggests it may have nutritional value," Harper says.

In 1943 researcher Albert Meads recorded having found organs of varying lengths upon the critters--an observation that suggests that severed organs do regenerate. Fascinating though this prospect is, no UCSC researchers have ever seriously pursued this question. And beyond Harper's book, the life of this quirky gastropod, depicted as a bespectacled, Plato-reading mascot on UCSC's trademark Slugwear, remains relatively unexamined.

On the Move

AND THAT'S too bad, given that the university appears to be suffering from its very own brand of gigantism. Since UCSC opened its doors 36 years ago, student enrollment has swelled 2000-fold (from 65 knowledge seekers in 1965 to 12,700 career trackers in 2001), and the city is now obliged to provide the campus with 2 million gallons of water daily, even though city water levels are dangerously low.

And while UCSC has pledged to house 45 percent of its student body on campus--admittedly the biggest percentage of any of the UCs--this increasing influx of students has strained an already tight housing market. Today, one-bedroom apartments rent for $1,000, and affordable off-campus housing, thwarted by decades of no-growth policies, is scarce, though promises of state-funded lodging could loosen the overall rental market supply.

Meanwhile, the university is housing 153 students in the Lower Quarry, a potential rockfall hazard site that was once headquarters for UCSC's Predatory Bird Research Group and cold vegetable storage for UCSC's Farm and Garden.

A 28-acre parcel between the UCSC Arboretum and the Farm is the subject of controversy, with environmentalists arguing that the scheme will infringe on both arboretum and farm as well as pave open space, while faculty say it will provide desperately needed affordable housing. Environmentalists are also fighting proposed student and research housing at Terrace Point, a 55-acre university-owned parcel that abuts Long Marine Lab and is one of the last pieces of undeveloped coastal terrace.

For now, the university has begun leasing the Holiday Inn on Ocean Street to house some of its students, thus turning a tourist facility into a dormitory with maid service. This 10-year deal will cost $19.5 million and has angered city officials who figure that the city stands to lose $500,000 a year in taxes.

And while the city is concerned that ever-increasing enrollment and more parking garages on campus will aggravate traffic citywide, it can't squawk too loudly. As the biggest employer in the county, UCSC was responsible for over three-quarters of a billion dollars in economic activity in 1999-2000, nearly all of which was new to the local economy.

But unless UCSC voluntarily cuts enrollment or the city quickly builds lots of affordable-housing units--both unlikely moves--the university may be end up sacrificing more of the trees that support its mascot so as to accommodate the very students who love the slug.

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From the September 26-October 3, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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