Nudibranch Central

Some of the most colorful creatures in the world's oceans are sea slugs. Slugs?

"Slug" doesn't do justice to nudibranchs. "Nudibranch" (meaning "naked gills") sounds serious and scientific but does little to convey the striking forms and stunning colors of these soft-bodied marine gastropod mollusks. They've been dubbed "underwater jewels" and "butterflies of the sea." But bear in mind that all nudibranchs are carnivorous. Their pretty colors belie their predatory skills.

"You're looking for slugs?" people often say to me. Their voices waver between disbelief and pity when they see me lying face down at dawn in tidepools and wonder what I'm doing.

Don't think slugs. Think "little lions with bling."

As I explore tidepools near The Needles crammed full of nudibranchs—an area I've dubbed Nudibranch Central—I'm a kid in an eye-candy store. Opalescent, three-lined, red sponge, clown, orange-and-white-tipped, shaggy mouse, lemon, leopard: I'm scrambling to keep count of the many species I'm seeing in these teeming pools each minus-tide morning.

What amazes me about the scene below from Nudibranch Central is that the four species in the photo represent three nudibranch groups: dorid (red sponge nudibranch, Rostanga pulchra); dendronotid (Dendronotus frondosus); and aeolid (shaggy mouse nudibranch, Aeolidia papillosa, and opalescent nudibranch, Hermissenda crassicornis).

Yup, I'm now a full-fledged nudibranch nerd. Hunting these strange little predators has become an obsession. Some people get up early to see birds; I'm drawn to the ocean's edge in search of slugs. The prospect of adding a new nudibranch species to my list gets me out of bed before the sun rises above spruce-covered hills to illuminate the tidepools.

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