Hi! I’m Jessica Goodheart, the newest graduate student of Dr. Allen Collins in the Invertebrate Zoology department at the NMNH. As an undergraduate, I was one of those students that told people “I’m going to be a marine biologist,” thinking only of the marine mammals that the majority of the general public finds most interesting. This was only, however, until I discovered nudibranchs, which are now the focus of my research interests.
Nudibranchs are “naked gill” sea slugs. They have no shell, most are extremely small (think pencil eraser size) and they are brightly colored with really cool patterns (as in Chromodoris albopunctata to the right). Because of these interesting colors and patterns, they are popular models for a lot of underwater photographers and are really fun to find in tide pools.
For my research at the University of Maryland, as part of the Behavior, Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics (BEES) program, I will be looking at an aspect of some nudibranchs called aeolids. One of the things that many aeolids do is exciting: they are able to steal the defensive cells of cnidarians (usually sea anemones and hydroids) they feed on and use them for themselves!
Cnidarians have giant organelles, called nematocysts, that function in prey capture and defense against predators. These are the stinging cells that cause the rashes and swelling associated with jellyfish stings. When aeolids (a type of nudibranch) feed, they are somehow able to prevent the stinging cells of the cnidarians from firing, in some cases by their mucus discharge. In addition, the nematocysts go through the digestive tract of the nudibranch to the end, where there are pouches called cnidosacs that can hold the stinging cells for when the aeolids need to use them for their own defense.
These appealing creatures will be the focus of my research (and life) for the next 4-5 years, and I look forward to sharing my stories and results with all of you!