Solar Powered Sea Slugs

posted by Freya Goetz / on February 8th, 2010 / in molluscs, Symbiosis

The slug pictured above, Elysia chlorotica, is a symbiont thief.

Elysia chlorotica eats the alga Vaucheria litorea but does not digest it. The slug cuts open algal filaments and sucks out the contents, transferring the living chloroplasts to its own tissue. Chloroplasts are organisms that have lived symbiotically within plant cells for many millions of years. They harness energy from the sun, which they give to the plant or alga cell they live within. Most animals digest the chloroplasts entirely when they eat plants, but not Elysia. By keeping the chloroplasts intact and transferring them to its own tissue, Elysia allows them to continue photosynthesizing, producing energy for the slug. The slug can then live for months without eating as long as sunlight is available, and can maintain the same chloroplasts for its entire adult life. This is an extremely unique relationship between an animal and plant symbionts.

Many other animals form associations with photosynthetic organisms. Corals such as the one depicted below have a symbiosis with multiple single-celled organisms called zooxanthellae. This is a multiple-level symbiosis because corals house the entire chloroplast-containing zooxanthellae cells within their tissue. This is different from Elysia chlorotica, who has cut out the middleman — instead of incorporating entire  cells, it only retains the chloroplasts.

The upper photograph (of Elysia chowing down) was taken by Nicholas E. Curtis and Ray Martinez. The second photograph is courtesy of Mary S. Tyler, and was the cover of PNAS when this paper was published. The lower picture is the coral Porites as photographed by Casey Dunn. You can watch two amazing videos of the slugs in action, here and here, both of which were included in the PNAS paper.