nudibranch

If you branch off the main trail to the beach, you will find a set of secret stairs going down… and then, if you peek carefully between the branches, you may be able to see something rather, uh, natural. But do be careful that you don’t get slugged for peeking.

Well, it’s not as though you’ll get slugged in the eye for what you see. It’s really more that you’ll eye a sea slug. Hate to disappoint, but that’s what a nudibranch is (though not all sea slugs are nudibranchs).

Yes, those little slimy things might (in some cases) look like something that would make a prude blush, but more likely they’ll just give the squeamish the willies. And by “willies” I mean fantods. Their name, on the other hand, is reasonably eye-catching. It’s long, it has that dib cluster in the middle with its symmetry and its resemblance to a variety of different things, and it appears to be made of parts (nudie branch) that would suggest, well, a euphemism for something that sea slug could also be a euphemism for, perhaps.

And indeed the nudi is the same as in nude or nudie – it’s from Latin nudus “naked”. But the branch is not the same as in English branch. It’s not related – our word branch comes from Latin branca “animal’s paw”, whereas this branch is from Latin branchia “gills”. Not only that, the ch here is pronounced /k/, meaning – what a visual prank – that this word rhymes with bank.

You won’t necessarily find a nudibranch in a bank, though, not even a sandbank – more likely a tidal pool or anywhere in the intertidal zone (the part of the ocean’s edge that is sometimes submerged and sometimes not). And of course in a National Geographic article on the intertidal zone, such as the one in the June 2011 issue.

You will see, too, when you peek (try www.sergeyphoto.com/underwater/nudibranchs.html and ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/06/nudibranchs/doubilet-photography for some good galleries), that these sea slugs are not actually all slimy and disgusting. Some of them are quite pretty. They’re all hermaphroditic, too (who peeked!) and come in sizes from less than an inch to two feet long.

Yes… a two-foot-long sea slug. That’s rather longer than the word nudibranch, which barely even qualifies as sesquipedalian. And, like the word, they can have a look that is simultaneously familiar and exotic – and a bit deceptive and possibly even blush-inducing.

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