The sea slug that can harness the Sun

By Rebecca Baker 28 November 2013
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An Australian Geographic Society project is studying strange marine animals that are using photosynthesis.

EVER HEARD OF A solar-powered mollusc? Jude Keyse, a graduate student at the University of Queensland, is scouring the Indo-Australian archipelago for the remarkable Elysia sea slug.

These tiny, green molluscs are able to steal chloroplasts from their algal food source. Chloroplasts are parts of plant cells that capture energy from sunlight, and these slugs use them to capture energy in much the same way – a very rare ability in animals.

Jude is using AG Society funding to determine whether the formation of new Elysia species has been driven more by geographic isolation of populations or through ‘ecological speciation’ where different groups of animals start to use different resources in the environment.

“If I find that they are kept separate by living on different algae, but are found in the same area, this would provide support for ecological speciation, a hot topic in evolutionary ecology,” she says.