By Kelly Sutherland, University of Oregon
All animals must eat to survive. If you’ve heard the term “grazer” before, it may bring to mind familiar farm animals, such as cows or sheep munching on pastureland. But the ocean has its own suite of grazers, with very different — even bizarre — body forms and feeding techniques. Instead of teeth, one group of these invertebrates uses sheets of mucus to consume huge quantities of tiny plant-like particles. In our new paper, my colleagues and I suggest a new categorization for this overlooked group: “mucous-mesh grazers,” in recognition of their unusual feeding strategy.
Unlike the mucus in our noses, which appears amorphous and blobby, the mucous sheets of these ocean grazers can be structured into ornate meshes and nets. These mucous sheets can function like a filter to ensnare food as small as bacteria. The grazers themselves are mammoth in comparison: up to 10,000 times bigger than their food. If people ate food that small, you’d be picking salt and sugar grains off your dinner plate.
Marine biologists like me used to think mucous grazing was a “catch-all” feeding strategy – the idea was these guys would just chow down on whatever their mucous sheet caught. But recent technological advances are helping us understand that mucous grazers can be picky eaters. And what they consume — or don’t — influences ocean food webs.
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