Date of Award

Spring 4-18-2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Neuroscience Institute

First Advisor

Charles Derby

Second Advisor

Manfred Schmidt

Third Advisor

Matthew Grober

Fourth Advisor

John Caprio


In predator-prey interactions, prey species have complex defensive behaviors to protect themselves from predators. Chemical defenses are one tool that is employed to protect against predators, especially for slow-moving or otherwise susceptible prey. Many of these chemical defenses have been studied and the effective compounds identified, but few studies were performed on their mechanisms of detection.

In my research, I used the sea hare, Aplysia californica, as chemically defended prey. This slow moving mollusk is soft-bodied with no external shell, but it has adapted a number of defenses including chemical defenses. Ink is a sticky mixture of the products of the ink gland and the opaline gland which are mixed in the mantle cavity and released toward an attacker. I show that this ink secretion protects the sea hare from predation by a fish predator.

Because many deterrent compounds taste bitter, bitter taste receptors are thought to protect predators from ingesting harmful compounds in prey. Studies of deterrent taste detection have commonly utilized bitter compounds from human hedonics to study the responses in animals, such as fruit flies, fishes, rats, and monkeys. In my dissertation, I argue that the study of chemical defenses allows us to ask more questions about detection of relevant deterrents and interactions between predators and prey at the individual and population levels. My results show that diet-derived pigments in Aplysia ink, aplysioviolin and phycoerythrobilin, are strongly deterrent to fish predators. Electrophysiological analyses of the gustatory system show that these compounds are equipotent and cross-adapt each others’ responses completely. Aplysioviolin and phycoerythrobilin produced incomplete reciprocal cross-adaptation with amino acids and adapted bile salt responses but were not significantly adapted by these latter stimuli. These results showed multiple pathways that are sensitive to aplysioviolin and phycoerythrobilin, which may have different effects on the physiology and behavior of the predatory fish. My findings demonstrate the value to the fields of chemical ecology and chemosensory biology of studying sensory processing of relevant deterrent compounds. This work lays the foundation for how a diet-derived photopigment is adapted by a species to protect itself from predators by stimulating their chemosensory systems.