The Leaf Sheep: Meet The Sea Slugs That Can Photosynthesize

The ‘leaf sheep’ is a sea slug that gets its name for being a lot similar to its herbivorous land namesake. They graze for food in the ocean and supplement their diet in an extraordinary way; through the energy transmitted by sunlight.

The leaf sheep is considered as the sole multicellular creature clade that can photosynthesize sunlight and convert it to food.

The sea slugs are delicate creatures and their bodies are similar to those of shell-less snails. These creatures do not shy away or retract in human presence. They follow a routine monotonous pattern circling the leaf of an algae leaf and feeding on it continuously.

Amazing Pictures Of The Leaf Sheep On Social Media Has Aroused Interest In The Cute Creatures

When you see a bunch of the creatures perched on an algae leaf, the leaf sheep look like a herd of sheep grazing on an algae field. These affectionate and curious sea creatures found in the sea near the Philippines are the Costasiella kuroshimae or the leaf sheep. It has a striking similarity with the much larger land creatures, though it is neither a sheep nor a leaf, but merely a sea slug.

These cute creatures were first seen in 1993 near the Kuroshima coast. It is an island in Japan. They are also found in Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Leaf Sheep Has Some Amazing Properties

The appearance and life cycle of the slugs make it apparent that the leaf sheep is indeed a unique organism. They are the sole organism that can photosynthesize, though they aren’t a plant.

The leaf sheep generate sufficient energy through the process of kleptoplasty, the practice of typically eating aquatic plants like algae and ‘stealing’ the undigested chloroplasts. It is similar to humans eating a green leafy vegetable and retaining the chloroplast. Their ability to photosynthesize has led to them being called solar-powered sea slugs.  

This practice allows them to survive easily for 2 months at the very least. The leaf sheep are found in the seas around Japan.

Another group of sea slugs, the Sacoglossa also has similar properties but isn’t as endearing as the leaf sheep. They are also known as the Emerald Elysia and are found on the east coast of North America.

The rhinophores, the scent or taste receptors, of the sea slug are made up of fine hair that can sense chemicals present in nearby water. This helps the creatures procure food and avoid danger.

leaf sheep

These tiny creatures grow to a length of 7 to 8 millimeters and can survive from 6 to 12 months.

The leaf sheep is a hermaphrodite, it has both female and male reproductive organs. But they must mate to produce eggs. These eggs hatch in shelled larvae and remain there between 1 and 2 weeks inside the plankton. The shells are then discarded by the slugs, and they grow into adulthood.

The Leaf Sheep Feed On A Particular Type Of Algae

These cute sea slugs feed on a felt-like and fuzzy form of algae known as the Avrainvillea. It grows in places with very soft substrates, including fine sand and silt. These are found near coral reefs though not in coral reefs.

The leaf sheep spend their whole life on a particular algae species. A full colony of the sea slug can be seen together. At times, around 15 to 20 of these species of sea slugs can be seen on one tiny blade of the algae. At times, the mass of effs of these slugs sea slugs can be seen on the algae and resemble little spiral coils.

Environmental Threats Faced By The Leaf Sheep

Though the leaf sheep are not in immediate danger, they are facing habitat loss through destructive forms of fishing such as dynamite or cyanide fishing.

leaf sheep

Such practices kill the organisms and destroy their marine habitat. Though the Philippines has outlawed this practice, neighboring countries continue with this practice.

Climate change is also affecting the leaf sheep, with frequent and intense typhoons that hit the Philippines proving destructive to the leaf sheep. Plastic pollution is another source of intense pollution that could destroy these cute creatures.

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