Pierce emphasized that this green slug goes far beyond animals such as corals that host live-in microbes that share the bounties of their photosynthesis. Most of those hosts tuck in the partner cells whole in crevices or pockets among host cells. Pierce’s slug, however, takes just parts of cells, the little green photosynthetic organelles called chloroplasts, from the algae it eats. The slug’s highly branched gut network engulfs these stolen bits and holds them inside slug cells.
Some related slugs also engulf chloroplasts but E. chlorotica alone preserves the organelles in working order for a whole slug lifetime of nearly a year. The slug readily sucks the innards out of algal filaments whenever they’re available, but in good light, multiple meals aren’t essential. Scientists have shown that once a young slug has slurped its first chloroplast meal from one of its few favored species of Vaucheria algae, the slug does not have to eat again for the rest of its life. All it has to do is sunbathe.
In fact the slug comes pre equipped with the necessary equipment to synthesize its own chlorophyll, the machine that captures energy from sunlight and makes plants green, and run the captured chloroplasts. As one researcher put it, “This could be a fusion of a plant and an animal—that’s just cool.” It certainly is, and for evolution it is bizarre. As one evolutionist put it, “Steps in evolution can be more creative than I ever imagined.”