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Toxin Sensing Sea Slugs

September 11, 2015

A sea slug co-opts a seaweed’s chemical defenses and its ability to harvest energy from the sun.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Sea slugs with super powers. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In the Caribbean, Halimeda seaweed produce a noxious chemical to deter would-be predators. But a tiny sea slug called Elysia senses the chemical and tracks down the seaweed, its favorite snack. This according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

DOUGLAS RASHER (Georgia Tech/University of Maine):

It not only tolerates the defenses that the seaweed produces, but it also steals the defenses to make itself immune from predation, and it also steals photosynthetic organelles from the seaweed, basically to turn into a solar powered sea slug.

HIRSHON:

That’s community ecologist Doug Rasher, now at the University of Maine. He says the sea slugs preferentially attack during the seaweed’s rare reproductive periods, as the coveted defense compounds peak during this time.

RASHER:

They’re capable of detecting that the seaweed is going to go reproductive.

HIRSHON:

I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.