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The secret lives of sea slugs

MBL, WOODS HOLE, MA--It turns out that the sea slug isn't really that sluggish after all. So says the first broad field study of this charismatic orange creature's behavior in the wild, which was just published in the April 2006 issue of The Biological Bulletin.

The new research is significant because the sea slug known as Tritonia diomedea, a nudibranch mollusc species found in the shallow northeast Pacific, is important in laboratory studies of the how the brain controls behavior, a field known as neuroethology.

Biologists Russell Wyeth and Dennis Willows, of University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories, launched the study to help provide missing information on this important research animal.

"Tritonia is one of the testing grounds for a lot of ideas for how nervous systems work," says Wyeth. "Field work with this organism is helpful because it gives you a good idea of how to set things up in the lab."

Observations of the slug's natural behaviors and the sensory cues that trigger them also add exciting new context for scientists studying them under experimental conditions and provide information that cannot be obtained in laboratories.

The study sheds light on the sea slug's navigation, feeding, mating, and egg-laying behavior, and confirms that many of this creature's behaviors in the wild are similar to published descriptions of laboratory behavior. The navigational observations are among the study's most exciting findings, not only because they are new to science, but also because they suggest that sea slugs don't just inch randomly around the sea.

In fact, they respond to odors and other sensory cues by initiating beneficial navigational behaviors, including escaping from predators by swimming up into water currents that hurl them (un-sluggishly) end over end downstream and away from harm, as well as crawling aggressively (for slugs) upstream to breed and feed. The observations also correlated with
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Contact: Carol Schachinger
cschachi@mbl.edu
508-289-7149
Marine Biological Laboratory
3-May-2006


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