Land slugs and salt

August 28, 2006
From: Dave Sigworth

I can't seem to find this question asked /answered previously on your web site so pardon me if I'm asking you to repeat yourselves, but ....

If I pour salt on a garden slug to kill it, how is it that sea slugs live in salt water? Is it due to some similar difference between freshwater fish and marine fish?

Dave Sigworth

Sigworth, D., 2006 (Aug 28) Land slugs and salt. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from

Dear Dave,
I'll try and give you a short uncomplicated version of what is quite a complex physiological story.

Firstly, all life on land has evolved from the sea. Body fluids, such as blood, have much the same salt concentration as sea water, because the primitive animals we evolved from weren't very good at stopping salts and water in the sea water passing in and out of their bodies through their skin. Which brings us to a physical phenomenon called osmosis. If you put salty water of two different salt concentrations together, water from the less salty solution will move to the saltier solution until they are both the same saltiness. Now, if we use freshwater fish as an example, their blood and body fluids are much 'saltier' than freshwater. If osmosis was allowed to occur, their bodies would be flooded with freshwater rushing in to lower the salt concentration so that it matched the surrounding freshwater. In effect the fish would inflate with freshwater and burst! However freshwater fish have evolved ways of preventing this - skin that doesn't allow water through easily, and kidneys that can pump excess water out - a bit like a boat's bilge pumps.

Which brings us back to land slugs. They have an even greater problem because they live out of water and their skin is not particularly good at preventing water movement in and out. That is why  in air they have to be careful to stay damp so they don't dry out. That is one of the reasons they are most active at night, and why they secrete 'slime' from skin glands..

Now to the salt treatment. In terms of osmosis, damp salt is a very highly concentrated solution, so when salt is placed on a land slug, water from inside the slug quickly moves out through the skin to try and balance the salt concentration inside and outside the body. The result is that most of the water is sucked out of the slug and it dies. Sea Slugs and land slugs have much the same salt concentration in their blood as sea water, so Sea Slugs in sea water are ok. However if you keep sea slugs in an aquarium, and you don't look after the aquarium, often water will evaporate and the salt concentration in the aquarium water will rise and the animals will die. Not quite as dramatic has covering a slug with salt, but the same basic principle.

Best wishes,
Bill Rudman

Rudman, W.B., 2006 (Aug 28). Comment on Land slugs and salt by Dave Sigworth. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from

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