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Project Lab 

February 28, 2013

Collecting Slugs

Last time I gave you a taste of what it is like to participate in a major expedition. This time I’m going to explain how we actually find and collect nudibranchs and other sea slugs.

First of all, sea slugs can be found just about anywhere in the world’s oceans from the shallow intertidal down to the deep sea, and from the cold polar regions to the warm tropics. Depending on what type of habitat we are trying to sample, we may use different techniques.

No matter what technique we use, one thing that is particularly important to our lab is to make sure that we leave a minimal impact on the habitats that we sample. This means that if we turn over a rock or a dead coral boulder, we make sure to turn it back to the way that it was. We do this because there are many kinds of animals that live on the bottom of or underneath rocks and rubble (like certain kinds of sponges). If you turn over a rock and don’t put it back the way it was, those animals lose their habitat and may not survive. Because of this, we do our best to leave habitats in the same condition as we found them.



For species that are found in the intertidal, we go out during a low tide and wade around and look for slugs. The lower the tide, the better. When I was at Kings Beach in Queensland, Australia, I surveyed the intertidal by wading and turning rocks. I found this technique very effective for this habitat and most of the slugs that I found at this site were hiding under rocks.

Terry SCUBA diving


While we occasionally sample in the intertidal, most of our sampling happens subtidally (below the low tide mark). The main technique we use to survey for nudibranchs subtidally is SCUBA diving. In Madang, Papua New Guinea we would do about 2 to 3 dives nearly every day. While diving, we turn over rocks or dead coral boulders. It’s really amazing what you can find living under these! Most of the slugs that live on a coral reef are found hiding under coral rubble. For this reason, I get really excited when I find a dive site with a lot of coral rubble!  I will also mention that some slugs are only found at night, so to find these, we SCUBA dive at night. Many of the slugs I study are found at night over a sandy bottom. To find these, you want to survey as much of the bottom as possible during the night dive.


Another technique we may use as an alternative to SCUBA is snorkeling or free-diving. At one of my sites in Australia, I looked for nudibranchs while snorkeling. This is a little bit more difficult than SCUBA for me because I’m not able to hold my breath for that long. This made it challenging to turn larger rocks and requires a lot more energy to be constantly free-diving down to the bottom. However, in some ways snorkeling is more convenient and less expensive than SCUBA diving.


Once we find a slug, we need to get it into a container. This can be a bit tricky because the slugs are very soft, often slippery and usually squishy. It becomes even more challenging if you are working with a very small slug (the size of a grain of rice, or a sesame seed!) and if you have currents in the water. There is nothing worse than a tiny slug floating off in the currents! Typically, I will pick up the slug with my fingers and do my best to place it in a plastic jar underwater. Other people often use plastic bags, but I find the hard containers easier to manage. After the slug is in the jar, I place it in my mesh collecting bag, and go off to find the next slug!


Finding slugs can be quite challenging, but extremely satisfying! Check back in a few weeks to hear about the preservation process!

Vanessa Knutson

Project Lab Coordinator and Graduate Student

Department of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 1:33 pm

February 21, 2013

Vic’s Nudibranch Addiction

Most people who see me in the Project Lab know me as the bug and spider guy, taking pictures of and talking about the arthropods with whom we share the planet. But I have a secret past in which I studied the butterflies of the sea, those fascinating sea slugs known as nudibranchs!


For those of you who follow the project lab blogs, you are aware that 2 different graduate students working in the Project Lab are doing projects on nudibranchs for their degrees. Each of them is studying a different group of these fascinating and beautiful animals, defining their evolutionary relationships, and probably finding new species along the way.

I became involved with nudibranchs in the mid-90’s here at the Academy’s Summer Systematics Institute (SSI), where I worked with Terry Gosliner. I was hooked, and soon returned as a graduate student at San Francisco State University, with Terry and Gary Williams (our coral expert) as my in-house research advisors. I spent much of my time studying the family Tritoniidae, who feed on soft corals, so Gary was able to provide valuable expertise on their prey species. At the time, the majority of our museum holdings of this family had been collected and preserved in a way that made DNA analysis impossible, so without much fresh material, I was confined to a morphological approach.


Perhaps the coolest part of the work was the job of identifying and describing new species. Dr. Robert Bolland, now retired, is a nudibranch expert, collector and diver who spent much of his time underwater collecting in the Ryukyu Island chain of Japan, providing many specimens to our collection. He collected a beautiful little nudibranch, along with the soft coral he found it on, which the nudibranch appeared to be eating.

The new species was named in honor of the collector. Dissections of the preserved animals provided stomach contents containing tiny skeletal elements from the coral, which we compared to the coral found with the animals, providing evidence that this coral species appeared to be the sole food source for this nudibranch.

Until next time,

Vic Smith

Imaging Specialist /Curatorial Assistant

Entomology Department

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:13 pm

February 15, 2013

Specimen of the Day: Common Poorwill

Specimen of the Day: Phalaenoptilus nuttallii


Phalaenoptilus nuttallii is quite a big name for such a small bird! The common name for this bird is the Common Poorwill, although you may have never even seen or heard of this bird before because of its amazing camouflage and nocturnal lifestyle.

The Common Poorwill belongs to a group of birds known as the Nightjars. They are nocturnal birds that can be found on the ground or in low tree branches watching for insects. The calls of the Poorwill are what actually give these birds their name. “Poor-will, poor-will, poor-will” they call at night, often being mistaken for insects or some other animal. The plumage of the Common Poorwill renders them virtually invisible, especially at night, which is why most people may not even know the sound they are hearing is actually a bird!


A special thing about the Common Poorwill is that this bird can enter into a state called “torpor” during the winter. Like mammals, these birds can lower their body temperature to a state resembling hibernation until food becomes more abundant. Unlike hibernation, which can last many, many months, torpor can refer to shorter periods of decreased metabolic activity and heart rate. For example, hummingbirds may bring their body into a state of torpor during the evening when temperatures are lower until the following morning when the temperature rises.

While the Common Poorwill may be new to you, they certainly are an interesting and beautiful bird. If you hear one on a summer night look down on the ground, it may be hiding at your feet!

Codie Otte
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology & Mammalogy Department

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:18 pm

February 6, 2013

Venture to the Philippines

In less than a month, I depart for an adventure of a lifetime! I am leaving the Academy for two months to work for the international conservation organization, Project Seahorse, to survey marine protected areas (MPAs) near the Philippine island of Bohol. The long-term monitoring of these areas is important for three main reasons:

  • To inform fishing communities of the health of their reefs
  • To mobilize communities to create and manage more MPA’s
  • To provide data to assess the effectiveness of the establishment of these areas on the recovery of reefs.

Community efforts will include increasing awareness of the value of the marine diversity and educating the people about more sustainable practices for utilizing their marine resources.


My first two weeks will entail intensive SCUBA training, followed by six weeks of surveys. Our efforts will be centered on documenting the diversity of fishes, seahorses and benthic marine invertebrates, such as coral. Project Seahorse is a world leader for marine conservation and research on seahorses. Seahorses are currently under threat due to habitat loss and their unsustainable usage in Chinese medicine.

I had my first wild seahorse encounter on my last trip to the Philippines. It was a tiny pink pygmy seahorse. Upon first glance, I did not see it, since it looked exactly like the soft coral it was attached to! What a sight to behold!


I have been attracted to the Philippines, since learning it was home to some of the most spectacular sea slugs. It is also the center of the center of marine diversity in the world. This fact has lead to my continued interest in the Philippines as the prime location to search for anti-cancer compounds within the array of marine slugs found here.

The cure for different types of cancer and other disease could be found in the organisms inhabiting the ocean. This is another reason why conserving our oceans is paramount! To learn more about this, see my prior post: http://www.calacademy.org/blogs/projectlab/?p=1351.

Preparation for my trip has been quite involved since I will be living in a remote village on Jandayan Island where there is no running water and limited electricity. I have roughed it before, but I am anticipating this to be much more rigorous. Despite this, experiencing and protecting the breathtaking beauty of the underwater environment is well worth it!

Carissa Shipman

Graduate Assistant in Public Programs

Department of Invertebrate Zoology

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:29 pm

February 1, 2013

Taxidermy or not?

A very common question I get when interacting with guests here at the Academy is whether I am a taxidermist. I suppose that in a way, I am, but I consider myself a study skin preparator rather than a taxidermist.

So, what’s the difference? Well, see for yourself!


Traditionally, taxidermists create “live mounts” – mounted specimens that are posed to look as though they are still alive. They’re posed in life-like ways and have realistic glass eyes. Study skins, on the other hand, aren’t posed in a way that you would find in nature – they are flat and compact, which is typical for specimens in a museum collection. While they may not seem as interesting to look at, study skins are essential to our research collection. These specimens take up much less space than live mounts and are prepared in a standardized way among museums, so it’s much easier for researchers to come through and look at a series of a species. Imagine trying to look at a feature of an animal if they’re all posed in different ways!

So, why do we have so many study skins in our collection? The average visitor might find it strange that we have thousands of bird and mammal skins, but it’s not strange at all. Here at the Academy, we’re a library that houses collections of life rather than books. These study skins are essential for bird and mammal researchers to use for their studies. They may be doing a comparative study about plumage differences in birds, or might take small samples from each skin in order to analyze DNA.

While I have yet to begin preparing live mounts, I love making study skins. The fact that they’ll be a part of the collection for hundreds of years and may help answer scientific questions in the future is very exciting to me. They may not look like they’re still alive, but these study skins have a life of their own in scientific research.

Laura Wilkinson

Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator

Ornithology & Mammalogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 1:30 pm

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