Salps: Silent Marine Heroes

Researchers at Florida State University have found a unique property of a marine organism that may help our underwater ecosystems, and even help our climate change problem.

These creatures, called salps, are clear, gelatinous blob-like animals. Previously, scientists thought that the salps competed for resources with krill for food and nutrition. However, new research by Limnology and Oceanography suggests that the slaps actually compete with protists for their resources.

“These fascinating and bizarre animals are becoming more abundant in the vast and warming Southern Ocean, so we sought to understand how their presence changes marine ecosystems,” said Michael Stukel, a researcher with FSU’s Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies and an associate professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science.

Salps live in a wide variety of oceans around the globe, and they rely on phytoplankton as their main food source. When they have access to a lot of food, they multiply quickly and are able to create blooms by the thousands. In order to get rid of the competition, the salps feed on algae and compact them into tiny “pellets” which then sink to the ocean floor. This reduces the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide that the algae produce.

An article by Florida State University describes how the researchers stumbled upon this discovery. 

“To understand what size prey the salps were eating, the researchers built a circular tank and filled it with salps and seawater, which contained their prey. They measured the fluorescence glowing from the salps’ prey living in the water and tracked how it changed over time to understand what size prey were being eaten.”

“If we get more of these really weird organisms, how is that going to change the way the ocean works — for everything in the ocean, but also for humans?” Stukel said. “Our results suggest that salps are not even really competing with krill. They’re going to be replacing protists, so if that happens, you’ll get a lot more carbon sequestration and you’ll probably even get a little bit more food availability, because although salps are not as good a prey as krill, they’re still better prey than protists.”

Having a better understanding of what salps do reshapes our knowledge of the roles that different organisms have in their ecosystem. If salps have helped the environment without us knowing for so long, who knows what other kinds of creatures have been doing the same.


Categories: Society