The Enemy of the State

I came of age, in an academic sense, working as a technician in a lab where the research focused on colonial hydroids. The other tech in the lab, Brenda, and I would get sent out to collect hydroids, then spend another day or so picking the predatory nudibranchs off the colonies. The PI of the lab called nudibranchs “the enemies of the state” and they really did have a way of showing up out of nowhere and then eating a hydroid colony down to nothing. It was rather amazing, actually. Brenda and I would swear we’d picked off all the nudibranchs, and more would show up the next day. This same PI had another saying:  “For every hydroid there’s a nudibranch that lives on it, eats it, and looks just like it.”

Case in point. Today Scott and I were examining not hydroids, but bryozoans, which are a completely unrelated type of colonial animal. We want to see if our tiny juvenile Pisaster stars will eat the bryozoan. It didn’t take long to see this:

The nudibranch Corambe sp. on the encrusting bryozoan Membranipora membranacea. 13 August 2015. © Allison J. Gong

The nudibranch Corambe sp. on the encrusting bryozoan Membranipora membranacea. 13 August 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

A bryozoan colony consists of many units, called zooids, that are connected in some way to form a functioning larger body. The brick-like white structures in the above photo are the zooecia, or “houses” of the bryozoan zooids. The round object near the center of the photo with wavy white lines is the nudibranch Corambe. The white lines on the back of the slug make it blend in very nicely with the bryozoan on which it feeds, and break up the outline of the body to disguise its size; how can you determine how big something is if you can’t see its edges? This slug is probably 2-3 mm long. As with most creatures this size and so effectively cryptic, it is very easy to overlook the slugs and never see them; however, once you have a good search image they become much more conspicuous and you find them everywhere. Search images are great things.

It’s also easier to see something if it’s moving, and it turns out that this slug can move pretty fast:

The voice that you hear is Scott’s.

Corambe lives primarily on Membranipora and eats it. Membranipora responds to this predation by forming spines along the edges of the colony; the spines make it more difficult for the nudibranch to crawl around. This kind of response is called an inducible defense. The same thing occurs when plants begin to produce noxious chemicals after being munched on by an insect herbivore. Scott and I will set up some feeding treatments for our juvenile stars and Membranipora will be one of the courses served, so we were both glad to see that despite all the slugs we picked off there were still lots of viable zooids remaining.

Here’s what a bryozoan is all about. Each zooecium forms the outer casing of one zooid. The zooecium itself is non-living but contains the living part. In Membranipora all of the zooids in the colony are the same, and each one possesses a ciliated tentacular crown called a lophophore. The cilia on the tentacles produce a current that directs food particles to the mouth, which is located at the base of the lophophore. In this video you can see particles moving in the current, and one zooid accidentally sucks in a glom of stuff that is too big. Watch how it tries to get rid of the piece it doesn’t want.

See how the individual tentacles sort of bend and then straighten up? I call that tentacle flicking.


If you spend a couple of hours looking at something through a microscope it’s inevitable that you’ll see something different and new. In one of the bryozoan pieces I saw two little pink blobs in an otherwise empty zooecium. It looked like they were moving, so I zoomed in and saw that they looked like shmoos. “Shmoo” has become my term for any undifferentiated, unsegmented, worm-like thing that I can’t identify. These pink shmoos were definitely moving, and here’s the video to prove it:

That little squeal at the end of the video? That’s me. I was delighted to see that the shmoos have two eyes and turn somersaults. I still have no idea what they are, and I’m totally okay with that. It’s enough to know that they exist.

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