Science students are teaching slugs how to behave

By Alexa Low

Dr. Kimberly Hale, professor of biological sciences, and her research team of science students have started the process of conditioning Aplysia, the scientific name for sea slugs.

The students have been taking care of several slugs while running experiments a couple times a week.

Slugs are pulled from their salt water bins and placed on a tray where Hale records how they react to being touched with a brush. If the slugs do not have an obvious reaction to the brush then they are then poked with a needle.

Some of the slugs react to being poked with a needle by producing a purple-pink ink.

The goal at the end of the experiment is for the slugs to learn to shrivel up a certain distance when touched with the brush so they there is no need for them to be poked with the needle.

This process is called classical conditioning.

“We actually have developed an affordable, minimally invasive procedure for conditioning the aplysia,” Hale said.

Baby slugs are another aspect of the research team’s conditioning process.

A piece of food is placed in the middle of the tray and the baby slugs are given a chance to move toward the food.

Just like with the adult slugs, the results are recorded.

The baby slugs learn that if they move toward the food they are allowed to eat. If they do not move then they will not get any food until feeding time.

This is the third year Hale has conducted these experiments with a student research team. By the end of the school year, the team will be putting together a protocol for other schools and universities to use.

“It can be used in high schools or other undergraduate places for some psychology classes or neurobiology classes so they can use our protocol,” Grant Huelsman said.

These findings will be presented at the academic symposium in the spring.

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