Why do Sea Hares make purple ink?
Sea hares (Aplysia punctata) are a common find on dives around the south, west and northern British Isle. They are usually around 7cm long but can grow up to 20cm in length. The colour of Sea hares varies from olive, brown, red and purplish black depending on the algal diet. At the head end, two slender rhinophores stand up like the ears of a hare, hence their common name.
At first sight, Sea hares would appear to be an easy target as a meal, there’s no shell, no spines like an urchin, no claws and they move at a fairly slow pace. Sea hares have a mucous coating containing acid and other nasty compounds which might deter some predators, but their party piece is to release a cloud of sticky, purple ink when attacked by hungry predators.
The cloud of purple ink is in fact a mixture of two secretions. On the back of the Sea hare the central structure is called the mantle with an opening called the foramen. Just under the surface there’s the last remnants of what was probably a shell in the Sea hare’s evolutionary history, a protein disc which acts as an internal shell. On the roof of the mantle is the Purple Gland above the gills. The Purple Gland is responsible for storing and secreting the ink. The building blocks for noxious chemicals are obtained from their algal food, particularly from red algae, metabolised and stored here. This strategy is quite common in marine gastropods and a number of these substances are being actively tested for pain killing, antibacterial, antiviral and anticancer activity. It’s powerful stuff.
Beneath the gill on the floor of the mantle cavity is the Opaline Gland. This gland secretes a white liquid that becomes viscous upon contact with water. If you’ve ever seen the videos of Hagfish (Myxini sp.) producing copious volumes of slime as a way of evading predators, then you will already have seen opaline in action.
The ink and the opaline are secreted into the cavity in the mantle where they mix and are expelled towards the predator. The ink has an intriguing role in that it has been shown to be a phagomimetic decoy (phago = eat, mimetic = to mimic). Some species of lobster will drop the sea hare and try to manipulate and eat the ink cloud, thinking that it is food. Whilst testing this idea scientists found another ink effect. The lobsters tried to rub the ink off their antennules. The opaline in the ink blocks the receptors and response to food odours, thereby preventing the predator from recognising that Sea hares are food. It’s the lobster equivalent of a stuffy nose. Whilst the lobster is busy removing the sticky ink, the Sea hare can make its escape. So, in this aspect the ink is rather more than just a cloud to hide the escape of the Sea hare, it is an active cloud which has the effect of blinding the predator.
It can take quite a bit of stimulation to persuade a Sea hare to produce ink. The threshold depends on factors such as the environment (living in a turbulent environment makes inking less likely), how full the gland is and what the stimulus is (inking occurs more rapidly near anemone tentacles that it does in response to an electric shock). If a Sea hare has full ink glands then it will release nearly half of its ink at the first stimulation. Each subsequent stimulation will release 30-50% of the contents. It will take at least 2 days to replenish the gland.
Whilst aquarium owners like the grazing tendencies of Sea hares, they panic about the effect that any inking has on the fish and other residents inside their tank. The jury is out on how much effect the Sea hare ink can have. Sea anemones retract their tentacles, but the evidence for the toxic effect of the ink inside an aquarium is limited, perhaps because the Sea hares aren’t feeding on red algae that are the source of the most potent toxins.
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Michelle has been scuba diving for nearly 30 years. Drawing on her science background she tackles some bits of marine science. and sometimes has a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.