People wouldn’t naturally think of animals and plants as taking advantage of solar power. But many extraordinary animals do actually take advantage of the power of the sun.
Some have suspected that the spotted salamander is a solar powered vertebrate. Now, there is hard evidence to prove their theory. These extraordinary animals are largely found in some parts of Canada, and throughout the eastern parts of the United States.
Spotted salamanders lay their eggs in pools of water. Soon after, the algae colonize these eggs within hours. Biologists in the 1940s suspected that there was a symbiotic relationship between the two.
They believed that the embryos release waste material, which the algae feed on. The algae undergo photosynthesis and thereby release oxygen, which the embryos take in. Embryos with more algae have the best chances of survival, and develop faster than those with fewer algae.
In 2011, this story was given an added twist. Researchers found that if the eggs are closely examined, it will show that some of the algae are living within the embryos themselves. In fact, in some embryos, the algae are inside their cells.
This indicated that the spotted salamander embryos are not just taking oxygen from the algae but are also taking the algae’s glucose. In short, the algae serve as internal power stations that generate fuel or energy for the salamander embryos.
Erin Graham of Temple University in Philadelphia sought to find out what was really happening. She and her team incubated salamander eggs in water filled with radioactive carbon-14.
Graham and her team found that the embryos became mildly radioactive – unless they are kept out of sunlight. That proved to them that the embryos could only take C-14 through photosynthesis in the algae.
With this information, Graham concluded that there could probably other solar powered vertebrates which manifest the same photosynthetic capacities. “Anything that lays egg in water would be a good candidate,” stated Graham, since algae have easy access to the eggs.
The same properties are not found in mammals or birds because when their young start in life, they are completely sealed from the outside world. With other amphibians and fishes, this photosynthetic capacity could very well be in some of them too.