Gardener, blogger and all around good guy Tom Hodgson got into a slug-fest recently. This small, slimy animal evoked a less than affirmative response from this usually very positive guy. And it even caused him to suggest, uncharacteristically, that we actually need to “take a moment and think bad things about slugs.”

No matter how many bad things Tom (and his fellow believers) think about slugs, it will take much than that to get rid of those soft-bodied creatures. A close look in your garden will prove this true. From hand-picking of these creatures to use of chemicals to do the dirty work, many methods have been attempted to destroy slugs, though success is never guaranteed. Slugs are a miracle of adaptation. But knowing the needs and lifestyle of slugs will help you gain a little ground if you are not in the “live and let live” camp.

Slugs are mostly water, so dessication is their natural enemy. Keep their nearby haunts dry if you don’t want them to be favorite habitats. Remove extra leaves, mulch and ground cover that could both harbor slug eggs and trap moisture. Water your garden in the morning: this will provide for your plants, but not maintain a wet and wonderful slug habitat. Create barriers that slugs can’t or won’t cross, or trap them in soapy water, beer or other liquids to keep them away from your plants. Seaweed can also serve as a salty deterrent, while providing nutrients for your crops.

For those who choose not to slug it out with slugs, take heart in knowing that they do serve an important function in any ecosystem. Slugs are not only renowned for their eating ability, including their removal of unwanted plants in your garden, but also play an important role in decomposition, eating many other things too. After all that, slugs are an excellent food supply for more desired wildlife, such as birds, turtles and frogs, among others.

As frustrating as they are to the home gardener, for the naturalist it is hard not to be fascinated by some of the unique characteristics of slugs. Their sex lives, believe it or not, are among some of the most interesting in the animal kingdom.

As hermaphrodites, individual slugs have both male and female organs. That’s right, some slugs do it alone if necessary, and can mate with themselves, though most will take a partner when there is one available. They find each other by following a potential mate’s slime trail.

One species, the leopard slug, uses that notorious slime to hang vertically alongside a mate to achieve reproduction, engaging in a swirling “dance.” This may sound a little odd to us, but this ballet reaches its crescendo when each slug inserts its sexual organ (which can be three times the length of the slug’s body) into the other to fertilize its partner’s eggs.

Another unusual slug occurrence that might make some cringe is the practice of “apophallation.” This situation occurs when two slugs can’t disengage after sex, perhaps due to the slime or simply strong female organ musculature. In those cases, it is not uncommon in some slug species for it to become necessary for a slug to bite off its own or its mate’s organ in order to separate. The lost organ will not grow back, so the dismembered slug will now only be able to act as a female.

Slug gender, then, can be transitory and even mutable, which presents us with a significant opportunity for observation and reflection. Keen observers, like Tom, may find that their initial revulsion eventually leads, ironically, to admiration.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.