Aplysia In Its Natural Habitat

Given the popularity of Aplysia as an experimental system, one might be tempted to think of Aplysia as being indigenous to the aquaria of neurobiology labs. However, the most widely studied Aplysia species, californica, lives in the cool Pacific waters off the California coast. Aplysia spends its time in the tidal and near-coastal zones, where it feeds on a diet of seaweed. Except for the buffeting of the ocean waves and currents (and, one must assume, the occasional curious SCUBA diver), Aplysia lead a fairly peaceful existence. They are unsavory to fish and have very few natural predators; however, Aplysia can serve as prey to certain types of sea anemones. When an Aplysia is seriously perturbed, it exhibits its most dramatic behavioral response—inking.

Aplysia possess an ink gland and can release a cloud of viscous purple ink, similar to that of the well-known octopus. Although the precise function of the inking is unknown, two popular ideas are that the ink may either contain noxious compounds to help ward off predators or serve to camouflage the animal from potential attackers. A strong aversive stimulus such as one that elicits inking by Aplysia also results in sensitiza-tion of the animal. For some period of time after inking, an animal will exhibit enhancement of its baseline defensive withdrawal responses. This ethologically relevant form of behavior modification is the basis for laboratory study of sensitization in Aplysia. Figure adapted from Walters and Erickson, reference 15.


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