Thuggish and sluggish behaviour

Rhanor Gillette

The ability of sea slugs to remember that certain prey-size animals taste awful is being copied in a bid to improve decision-making in artificial intelligence systems.

This video shows a sea slug from the genus Pleurobranchaea approaching a nudibranch (from the genus Flabellina), intent on eating it. The prey-species, however, has an important defence mechanism – it stores stinging cells from sea anemones in special anatomical structures called cerata. 

When the sea slug attacks, the stinging cells are released, and the slug immediately lets go of the nudibranch, turns around and – as much as it can – hot-foots it in the opposite direction. Research in 2013 showed that following such an unfortunate encounter, a Pleurobranchaea will remember it, and avoid nudibranchs for days afterwards.

Now, a study led by molecular biologist Rhanor Gillette from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US, has used the sea slug’s learning behaviour as the basis for new software, called Cyberslug.

The software replicates sea slug behaviour by simulating the relationship between virtual hunger levels and learning abilities. In a paper published in the journal eNeuro, Gillette’s team suggests that slug software could be adapted to better model complex decision-making behaviours in humans, such as those involved in addiction activities.

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