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Exotic Slugs Pose a Previously Unrecognized Threat to the Herbaceous Layer in a Midwestern Woodland


M. E. Dornbush, email


Developing effective restoration strategies requires first identifying the underlying factors limiting native plant recovery. The slug Deroceras reticulatum is an important herbivore in Europe, a global agricultural pest, and is introduced and abundant throughout eastern North America, but little information is available on the effect of this exotic herbivore on the forest herbaceous layer. Here, we test the palatability of 12 forest herbs to the introduced slug D. reticulatum and use field surveys to determine the degree to which slugs are damaging plants in the field. In laboratory feeding trials, slugs readily consumed most plants, but avoided the grass Elymus virginicus, the invasive forb Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard), and thicker leaved plants. In the field, we documented significant slug damage, with close to 50% or more of plant leaves damaged by slugs on five of the six native species tested. Slug damage in the field was predicted by laboratory-determined acceptability, but was significantly greater on short-statured rosette species than on erect plants for a given acceptability value. Our results identify introduced slugs as an important, but overlooked obstacle to forest herb restoration and potential drivers of larger scale understory compositional change. The relaxed herbivore pressure on A. petiolata, relative to native competitors, suggests that invasive plant removal alone may not result in the recovery of native flora. Rather, restoration of unpalatable native species should accompany invasive plant control in slug invaded areas. Erect forbs, thick-leaved plants, and graminoids should have the greatest success where introduced slugs are abundant.