Sea slugs are soft-bodied, shell-less mollusks that live throughout the Chesapeake Bay.
Eight species of sea slugs can be found in the Chesapeake Bay:
The first four species are sacoglossans, which are sea slugs that feed on plants. The last four are nudibranchs, which are carnivorous sea slugs.
Sea slugs have soft bodies that look similar to garden slugs. They vary in size from one-eighth of an inch to 1.5 inches in length. Color varies; sacoglossans are often uniformly green, while nudibranchs blend in with the surface they are on. Sea slugs have tentacles on their head, as well as sensory tentacles called rhinopohores toward the back of their body. Various gills, tubercles and club-shaped growths appear on the top part of their bodies.
Sea slugs live in a variety of mostly shallow-water habitats, including reefs, pilings, buoys, marshes, creeks and bay grass meadows.
Different species are found in different parts of the Chesapeake Bay. For example, emerald sea slugs are only found in Maryland waters. Kitty-cat sea slugs and rough-back nudibranchs live in the saltier waters of the lower Bay.
Sea slugs are categorized depending on their diet. Sacoglossans are herbivores that suck out and feed on the internal contents of algae. Nudibranchs are carnivores, feeding on tiny animals such as hydroids. Each nudibranch family tends to eat one or two particular types of food.
Because they lack shells, nudibranchs rely on bright coloration and strong scent to avoid predators. Some nudibranch species can eat the stinging cells of jellyfish and store them in their cerata; these “adopted” cells become part of the sea slug’s defense system.
Sea slugs have both male and female sex organs. They are able to mate with any individual of the same species. Eggs may take 5 to 50 days to develop into free-swimming larvae.