The wild world of solar-powered sea slugs

Michael Middlebrooks, an invertebrate zoologist, is passionate about sea slugs, specifically photosynthetic kleptoplastic sea slugs. In other words, the ones who can harness solar power.

In his TEDx PSU Talk, Middlebrooks shares that photosynthetic animals are able to convert solar energy into biological energy, just like plants do. However, there are some animals, like corals and sea slugs, that have managed to become photosynthetic themselves.

And how they do this is somewhat of a mystery. Taking a chloroplast and sticking inside of a cell is not enough to become photosynthetic. Chloroplasts need things that the algae provide to them that animals shouldn't be able to do. And we've started to unravel some of this. And this is a slow process and something that we're just really scratching the surface of. But one of the things that we've discovered for the two slugs shown here, the emerald sea slug, which can photosynthesize for its entire adult life cycle, nine months after one meal. And the lettuce sea slug, which lives throughout the Caribbean and the primary one I study, photosynthesizes three or four months after a meal. Both of these animals are able to make chlorophyll, which is one of the chemicals that is needed for photosynthesis to occur. And animals should not be able to do this. But somehow these slugs have managed to do it. And so this is one of the things that I find really exciting and that we're trying to unravel.