The first solar-powered vertebrate


Species: Ambystoma maculatum
Habitat: Throughout the eastern USA and parts of southern Canada, leaving other salamanders green with envy

When you think about it, animals are weird. They ignore the abundant source of energy above their heads – the sun – and choose instead to invest vast amounts of energy in cumbersome equipment for eating and digesting food. Why don’t they do what plants do, and get their energy straight from sunlight?

The short answer is that many do. Corals are animals but have algae living in them that use sunlight to make sugar. Many other animals, from sponges tosea slugsMovie Camera, pull the same trick. One species of hornet can convert sunlight into electricity. There are also suggestions that aphids can harness sunlight, although most biologists are unconvinced.

But all these creatures are only distantly related to us. No backboned animal has been found that can harness the sun – until now. It has long been suspected, and now there is hard evidence: the spotted salamander is solar-powered.

Plants make food using photosynthesis, absorbing light to power a chemical reaction that converts carbon dioxide and water into glucose and releases oxygen. Corals profit from this reaction by housing photosynthetic algae inside their shells.

Long-term partners

Spotted salamanders, too, are in a long-term relationship with photosynthetic algae. In 1888, biologist Henry Orr reported that their eggs often contain single-celled green algae called Oophila amblystomatis. The salamanders lay the eggs in pools of water, and the algae colonise them within hours.

Written By: Michael Marshall
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  1. Had ‘The Wise Designer’ thought of giving Homo Sapiens similar advantages, then perhaps we would have become a less aggressive species, in our search for energy.

  2. This is very cool. I think of it as yet another case of “catching evolution in the act”. The Endosymbiotic Theory proffered by Margulis predicts that we will find stuff like this (if and when we look). Of course, the whole contingent of people NOT looking for this will NOT find it and continue walking through this wondrous world with their blinders on. Looking for a transition species???

    On Tuesday I will be meeting 75 new Honors Biology students and I am going to reference this article and discuss it with them. Also, i am lucky enough to be less than 30 minutes from Temple University where some of the research occurs and many of my students pursue their college careers at Temple. I am very very excited!

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