Slugs fitted with tiny trackers to understand pests

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles,” said Sun Tzu in The Art of War. It’s great advice, but when the enemy is an unknowable army of slugs, and your team is made up of vulnerable lettuces, potatoes and other assorted crops then it’s hard to really apply it to the agricultural battlefield.

Slugs fitted with tiny trackers to understand pests

Slugs are a nuisance to gardeners, but they’re a more serious problem for the agriculture industry,

costing an estimated £100 million per year in lost produce. We can’t beat them without understanding their movements, so how do we learn more about the enemy we can barely see? Fit them with tiny trackers.

That’s the plan from Harper Adams University, which is implanting trackers around the size of a grain of rice into the gastropods. The researchers suspect that, rather than being evenly distributed over a field, slugs concentrate in specific areas. If they’re right, not only will the farmers save money on pesticides, but we’ll have a greener industry too.slug_eating_trackers_agriculture

How do you get trackers inside a slug? With tiny tools and surgery, it turns out. Slugs are anaesthetised in a chamber of carbon dioxide before a small cut is administered, and the tracker inserted. Each chip contains a unique tracking number that responds to radio signals emitted by the tracking device – which looks a bit like a metal detector. Crucially, the operation and implant don’t seem to alter their behaviour, with slug appetite and movement seemingly unchanged in the laboratory.

Once the hundreds of tagged slugs are released into the fields, researchers will go and track them at night to build up a daily picture of how the slugs move and cluster. It’s a three-year project, so there’s plenty of slugs to track down, and it should paint an interesting picture of their movements.

Professor Keith Walters, invertebrate biologist at Harper Adams University, told The Daily Mail: “From previous studies, we can see that slugs congregate in patches in the field. These patches normally form in areas where the soil moisture is high, or even waterlogged. What we don’t know is if the slugs stay in the same location and breed and live there, or if they are moving around the field and then stop for a while at one of these ‘slug utopias’ before moving along again.”

I didn’t expect to type the phrase “slug utopias” when I came to work this morning. If that’s not the only surprise to come out of this research, then we could be looking at a greener, more efficient and cheaper agricultural industry. Watch out, slugs.

READ NEXT: A history of animal migration tracking – how we got to bee backpacks

Images: Pete Birkinshaw and Christine Majul used under Creative Commons

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