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Introducing the Nudibranch: Multicolored Mollusks that Dazzle the Seafloor (Photos)

Nudibranch (Cratena peregrina) feeding on hydrozoan polyps in the Maddalena National Park, Sardinia, Italy. (Photo: Oceana / Carlos Suárez)

You may have heard of nudibranchs before, a group of soft-bodied mollusks that are just as quirky looking as their name suggests. More than 3,000 nudibranch species exist—commonly known as sea slugs—and dot shallow water habitat around the world with their vibrant colors, shapes, and sizes.

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Marine Monday: Valentine's Edition

spanish dancer eggs

A Spanish dancer's eggs, also known as a "sea rose." [Via Wikimedia Commons]

Happy (almost) Valentine’s Day!

Here on land, we give our sweethearts flowers to show our love. But what is the undersea equivalent of a rose? To answer that question, we’ve chosen three undersea creatures who seem to embody the spirit of Valentine’s Day.

Spanish Dancer

A Spanish dancer is a nudibranch, or sea slug, but these are much prettier than our above-ground slugs. They are free swimmers and wouldn’t make this list if it weren’t for their egg sacs, which are literally called a “sea rose.” And that’s exactly what they look like, a little rose growing under the sea.

But even the adults get in on the Valentine action, often colored bright red or pink and gracefully moving through the water like flamenco dancers. Watch out, though, because Spanish dancers and their sea roses are both toxic and best admired from a distance.

Mediterranean Red Coral

Mediterranean red coral is made of a hard red or pink skeleton, covered in small polyps that wave graceful tentacles. Its bright red color is truly eye-catching; so much so that people have been harvesting it for centuries to display and make into jewelry. It’s now difficult to find a thriving colony of red coral, and thus it should be off-limits as a Valentine gift. But taking your valentine on a dive to see some living coral would make for a lovely (albeit expensive) date.

Passion Flower Feather Star

We just love the name of this creature. The passion flower feather star is an echinoderm, like a starfish. They have many feathery arms—up to 20!—that look like red petals. They grip onto rocks or other hard surfaces and use the feathery appendages on their arms to trap plankton and other small foods. They mostly stay where they are, like a flower constantly in bloom, but will curl up into a protective ball if disturbed. They add a lovely spot of color to reefs and bays in southern Australia.

Our conclusion? Undersea gardens are just as beautiful as our rose gardens on land, but they are best left alone—like a rose, these creatures will not last long out of their habitats.

To learn more about exotic and unusual sea creatures, check out our marine wildlife encyclopedia.

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Fact of the Day: Spanish Dancer

Spanish Dancer (credit: Ana García Redondo and Pedro de Hoz Pastor)

Wonder how the Spanish dancer, or Hexabranchus sanguineus, got its common name? When it swims, the frilled edges of its mantle resemble the color and movement of the skirts of a flamenco dancer.

When they're not swimming, Spanish dancers crawl along relatively flat surfaces with the edges of their mantle tucked up close to their bodies (see the picture). They feed on sponges and can produce a toxic chemical to protect themselves from predation. 

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