New sea slug discoveries bring local engagement and international expertise

Dr Narissa Bax

The discovery of two new sea slugs of interest Elysia cf. patagonica and ‘Eveline’s sea slug’ by SAERI scientists and their children, inspired an art competition at the Infant Junior School and Camp Education (IJS&CE) to ‘design a nudibranch (or sea slug)’ for International Nudibranch day. International Nudibranch day is celebrated globally on the 29th of October every year to highlight the unique brilliance of, and the many threats to these beautiful marine molluscs (such as pollution and climate change). Elysia cf patagonica and Eveline's sea slugs have also become a test case in the power of local science communication with radio, television and school group related features highlighting these small creatures as new discoveries on our doorstep.
Image above: The green Elysia cf. patagonica is an iconic example of a small, unique and newly discovered rock pool beauty in the most accessible part of the Falkland Islands marine environment – the coastal shallows….illustrating just how much there is still to discover on our doorstep, and that such discoveries can be made my anyone with a passion for exploration – children being the greatest rock pool explorers of them all!
© Jesse van der Grient
Image above: The blue ‘Evelines’ sea slug is a possible ‘missing link’ in the global phylogenetic tree of sacoglossan sea slugs - connecting an evolutionary history across New Zealand, the Falkland Islands and Europe. These discoveries provide new biodiversity information for the Falkland Islands and inform on the wealth of species still to discover in the local marine environment.
© Stefani Carter
Image: A selection of artworks from the design a nudibranch competition
In preparation for the design a nudibranch (or sea slug) competition, IJS&CE teachers kindly dedicated their time to educating students from ages 4 - 11 about the key differences between a sea slug and a nudibranch. Because whilst all nudibranchs are sea slugs, not all sea slugs are nudibranchs (if that makes sense?). Nudibranchs are identified by their nakedness (nudi is from nudus meaning naked in Latin) - because they wear their gills on the outside of their bodies - like the feathered nudibranch species Aeolidia papillosa.
Image above: The feathered nudibranch species Aeolidia papillosa is the largest known nudibranch from the Falkland Islands (up to 12 cm) and can be identified based on its orange to violet colour, and the presence of forward facing ‘frills’ positioned at the front of its ‘antennae’. This species is also known to feed on anemones - and so can be identified not only based on appearance, but also behavior if you are lucky enough to find it feeding. © Stefani Carter

Image left: SAERI deputy director Teresa Bowers and SAERI scientist Dr Narissa Bax hand out prizes to the winners at the IJS&CE assembly

Image above: The final cohort of IJS&CE winners with SAERI scientist Dr Narissa Bax and IJS&CE year 5 teacher Mr Tim Mean who kindly dedicated his time to organising and inspiring both students and teachers to engage with the design a nudibranch art competition as part of an optional extra activity to fit around the busy local curriculum.
This is a great learning example for children (and adults) to understand what it means to determine if something is a new species or not. Species identification is the area of science known as taxonomy. The field of taxonomy is primarily concerned with accurately classifying life on Earth (biodiversity). Scientists do this by identifying the key differences (and similarities) between animals, plants and even microscopic organisms such as bacteria. They also use specific terms, rather than common names (like solar-powered sea slugs) to do so.

For example, both Elysia cf patagonica and ‘Eveline’s sea slug’ are classified within a superorder (a level of identification that is much higher than species-level) known as Sacoglossa or Sacoglossans and the use of ‘cf.’ is taxonomic shorthand for ‘too hard to identify without further examination’. In order to truly identify these Sacoglossans to species level, SAERI scientists Dr Narissa Bax and Dr Stefani Carter collected and preserved specimens from local Rookery Bay and Yorke Bay rock pools to send to Dr Patrick Krug, a sea slug taxonomist and researcher at California State University.

Both of these sea slug subjects are potentially new species in the Falkland Islands, however, Dr Krug will need to determine their genetics (their DNA-based relationships) and morphology (the character traits that make them stand out as unique) before we can formally classify them and give them new and more accurate species names.

In the meantime, Dr Krug kindly made this beautiful, informative and entertaining video for Falkland Islands school children to explain the science behind the design a nudibranch competition and learn more about the incredible diversity of sea slugs globally - check it out on the SAERI YouTube Channel :
Narissa Bax would like to warmly thank Dr Stefanie Carter and her son Gabriel for all their wonderful work exploring the Falkland Island rock pools, making new discoveries and encouraging others, like myself, to join in. Thank you to Dr Paul Brickle and his son Ben for finding the first specimens of Elysia cf patagonica. The John Ellerman Foundation for funding the Marine and Coastal Program Coordinator role at SAERI. Amy Constantine for progressing the design competition in November whilst I was away at COP-27 in Egypt. Teresa Bowers for coming all the way from the UK to hand out prizes to competition winners. Katy Ross for helping to judge the winning entries, and Jesse van der Grient for being a part of the process (but sadly from afar due to COVID-19 illness in November). Dr Patrick Krug the sea slug taxonomist and researcher at California State University who kindly created the video for SAERI to explain the science behind identifying a new sea slug species for the Falkland Islands school children. Darnell Christie from Falkland Islands TV, Megan Harris and Traighana Smith from Falkland Islands Radio and all the locals who engaged in this story, and continue to do so. Finally, an immense thank you to Mr Tim Mean (‘design a nudibranch’ would not have happened without you!) and all the 114 IJS&CE school children who took the time to design a nudibranch (or sea slug) and share their creations with us at SAERI.
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