The sun is starting to set on expanses of mirror-reflective tide pools speckling the beach of the Tawharanui Marine Reserve in New Zealand. I’ve been walking along staring into them at random in my search for anything novel when I chance across what is at best guess an example of Aplysia dactylomela – the variable sea or spotted hare.
In a surprising contrast to the small chitins, tunicates, and other finds, the sea hare was relatively large, measuring somewhere in the range of 5 to 6 inches in length. As seen in this additional photo, a smattering of spots can be seen along its body:
According to this source, sea hares are hermaphroditic though they do not practice self-fertilization. They may often form reproductive “chains”.
As suggested by one of their common names, they may be highly variable in appearance with their coloration primarily determined by the type of algae they feed on.
They release a purple dye as a mechanism to surprise and confuse predators. This particular characteristic was one I had once experienced first hand when handling my first sea hare in the mangroves of Key West. It certainly has a startling quality to it.
Variable sea hares tend to be more solitary, and nocturnal in nature. So perhaps no small amount of dumb luck governed this thrilling little chance encounter.