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Diversity of the Nudibranch in Malaysia

Yi Yuen - Janelle Ting

9 April, 2015

To those who have never dived, they would probably think dolphins, eagle rays,
and whale sharks are the main attraction, while the idea of a small slug-like, bottomdweller might seem like a boring prospect. However for divers, the picture is rather
different. According to Dive the World, a diving community and tourism website, they
view them as "little, riotously-colored creatures [that] bejewel the ocean floor, catching
the eye like glinting diamonds in the rough." Because they are so tiny and are usually
solitary, even the most keen-eyed diver may miss those cryptic species. Thus making a
sighting very rewarding.
The Nudibranch, or most commonly known as the sea slug, is a class of marine
Gastropod under the phylum of Mollusca. To better comprehend what kind of organism it
is, we need to first identify the meaning of the names it is classified under: the word
"nudibranch" comes from the Latin word nudus, meaning naked, and the Greek, brankhia
- gills. Furthermore, the Latin root word of Molluscus indicates that it is a soft-bodied
organism. With more than 2,300 species discovered so far, scientists estimate that they've
identified only half of all nudibranch species, while even the known ones are elusive.
The most notable feature of the nudibranch is that they come in a variety of
"sumptuous hues, intricate patterns, and fascinating body forms", as exclaimed by
National Geographic's writer, Jennifer Holland. They have two pairs of tentacles on the
head called rhinophores, used for tactile and chemosensory reception, with a small eye at
the base of each tentacle. They crawl with the help of ciliary action or the muscular action
of its foot, a flat and broad muscle that clings to rocks, corals, sponges and other surfaces.
As an adult, they lack a shell because it is shed off after their larval stage. Generally
oblong in shape, they could be as short as under 1 inch and up to 12 inches. They emit
copious amounts of slime; they are slugs after all.
They are distributed throughout the world - from the tropics to even Antarctica;
however, the greatest numbers and the largest species are found in shallow, warmer
waters. They usually habituate along the coral reefs but some are able to swim on the
surface in open ocean. The average lifespan can vary anywhere from weeks to one year,
based on the abundance of food available to them. While some are herbivorous, most are
carnivorous. In conjunction with that, they use their radula, a band of curved teeth, to
scrape or tear food particles. The most common activity for nudibranches is eating and
they dedicate most of their time to it, spending approximately 3 to 5 hours a day inactive.
They graze on small, sessile species such as hydroids, sea anemones, corals, sponges and
fish eggs.
Although they seem so small and helpless in addition to not having a protective
shell, their defense mechanism says otherwise. Because only certain can produce their
own poisons, most species extract the poisons by feeding on corals and sea anemones.
They do so by ingesting the nematocysts (stinging cells) of coral polyps without
discharging them. These then pass from the digestive tract to the cerata, the bizarre
outgrowth, where it is stored at the tip in the cnidosacs . where the irritating compounds
are projected like tiny explosives for its own defense when provoked. However, those
that are able to produce their own toxins secrete foul-tasting venom on the surface of
their skin. Furthermore, even though it may appear attractive to us, the bright colors and
patterns of the nudibranch also serves as a warning signal to predators of their chemical
defenses. Alternatively, the coloration also doubles as a camouflage mechanism, allowing
them to blend into various substrates.

Aside from that, they have both male and female sexual organs, making them
hermaphrodites. However, they cannot fertilize themselves. Mating couples often fight
one another over who is the male and who is the female. Once fertilized, they are able to
produce up to two million eggs which are usually deposited within a gelatinous ribbon,
spiral, or tangled clumps, depending on the species. The fertile nudibranch lays the eggs
very close to a food source so that the larvae will be able to feed when they emerge. The
eggs contain chemical toxins to deter any predators.
That being said, the depths of the oceans surrounding Malaysia houses a wide
array of one of the most alluring nudibranches, such as: the Hypselodoris bullocki, the
Chromodoris magnifica, Hexabranchus sanguineus, and the Phyllodesmium briareus.
To briefly describe them - starting with the Hypselodoris bullocki, this specie is
common at Pulau Redang as well as Sipadan. This creature ranges in colour from a pale
straw to even white background to a brightly painted muave. As contrast, there is usually
a thin opaque white line at the mantle border, but some specimens have a reddish purple
border. Typically, the gills and rhinophores are yellow or orange with a basal pink or
purplish band.
Next, we have the Chromodoris magnificia. It is normally found amongst its
favorite food, sponges of all variety in depth ranges of between 3 and 20m. The branched
gills and the rhinophores are orange colour and can be withdraw in specific pockets under
the skin in case of danger. The specific epithet magnifica in Chromodoris magnifica
means magnificent, so-named because of this nudibranch's striking, vibrant colors. The
background color of the body is. On the mantle, the bluish area is outlined by two
continuous black lines and a median continuous line cross it also. The margin of the
mantle is bordered with a large white band with a central orange color line. The foot has
three black continuous longitudinal lines. The margin of basis foot is outlined by an
orange and a white line.
In light of the Hexabranchus sanguineus, this Nudibranch is the largest of these
specimens and can grow to a length of 60cm. The species name, sanguineus, refers to its
bright red coloration, but a yellow variant also exists. In terms of mobility, it is wellequipped with two very different modes of locomotion: crawling and swimming. When it
crawls, the wide edges of the mantle are rolled up close to the body. When the animal
swims however, the red parapodia unfurl, and are whirled through the water in a
spectacular undulating motion, propelling the animal forwards. No wonder it is most
commonly known as the "Spanish dancer" because the whirling swimming movement,
and the red color of the mantle, are reminiscent of the skirt movements of a flamenco
And last but not least, the Phyllodesmium briareus. This Aeolid has lots of thin,
finger-like projections lining its body that is used to store the venom from the
nematocysts it ingests. Although it is not as attractive as the usual nudibranches, its dull
brown color, together with the many long appendages, acts as camouflage. It resembles
the soft coral Briareum violacea - explaining the origin of its given name.
Nudibranches cannot be taken away or preserved, otherwise, they would lose their
shape and colors. This protects the beautiful creatures from the risk of being fished out by
tourists, collectors or for sale. The best way to bring a nudibranch home with you is to
take a photograph. They are not capable of surviving in another micro-ecosystem other
than their own, and therefore cannot be kept in an aquarium because of their narrow

dietary range and other complex factors. Even in the sea they are more or less confined
within special habitat, providing them with specific food and micro-conditions.
Reconstructing the living conditions that are adequate enough to sustain them is an
artificially complex and costly challenge. Thus, the best and only way to see them is in
their natural habitat - the ocean. As marine enthusiasts say, "Take only photos, and leave
only bubbles."

This is an illustration of a Painted Hypselodoris, which can also be found in Malaysia.

Source: The Philippines Underwater @ flickr

Literature Cited
Holland, Jennifer S. "Living Color." National Geographic June 2008. National
Geographic Magazine. June 2008. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
"Borneo Diving in Malaysia." - Scuba Diving in Malaysia: Sipadan Island, Layang
Layang in Borneo and More. Dive the World. Web.
Ho, Dennis, and Moti Uttam. "Coral Reef & Fishes - Nautilus, Nudibranchs & Clams."
Journey Malaysia. Web.
Coleman, Neville. 1001 Nudibranchs: Catalogue of Indo/Pacific Sea Slugs.
Identification - Biodiversity - Zoology: The Ultimate Photo-Guide. Springwood, Qld.:
Neville Coleman's Underwater Geographic, 2001. 41-116. Print.
Fenner, Bob. "Nudibranchs, The Naked-Gill Sea Slugs." The Conscientious Marine
Aquarist. 2014. Web.