Emerald Sea Slugs (Elysia chlorotica) and Chloroplasts from Yellow Green Algae (Vaucheria litorea)

by DerdriuMarriner

Chlorophyll colors plants green. Sunlight directs it to turn plants into animal food. But sea slugs end up appearing leafy and feeding themselves by taking chloroplasts from algae.

The ability and the inability to make the green pigment chlorophyll respectively differentiate plants and animals.
• Function-defined, membrane-enclosed, results-oriented subunits known generally as organelles and specifically as plastids exist within algae and plants.
• They generate chemical compounds to be stored and used by cells.

They have the capability to:
• Absorb certain colors;
• Make sunlight-attractive pigments.

The consequence of their actions is the change of sunlit energy into chemical energy.
• It makes algae and plants energy-supplying, food-making entrepreneurs.
• The power may be passed genetically from parent to progeny algae and plants.

It may not be transmitted to algae- and plant-eaters.
• Or so it seems, until the discovery of emerald sea slugs making chlorophyll after eating yellow green algae.


Vaucheria genus of yellow-green algae (class Xanthophyceae)

microscopic life
microscopic life


The above-mentioned yellow green algae carry the scientific name Vaucheria litorea. The formal description of the genus dates to 1801. It expresses the expertise of Geneva-born Swiss botanist and phytogeographer Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (February 4, 1778 – September 9, 1841), whose love for plants was sufficiently compelling to inspire three generations of direct descendants to emulate him:

  • Alphonse Louis Pierre Pyrame de Candolle (October 28, 1806 – April 4, 1893);

  • Anne Casimir Pyrame de Candolle (February 20, 1836 – October 3, 1918);

  • Richard Émile Augustin de Candolle (December 8, 1873 – May 9, 1920).

The genus honors Geneva-born Swiss botanist and pastor Jean Pierre Étienne Vaucher (April 17, 1763 – January 6, 1841).



Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle: brilliant botanist named Vaucheria genus in honor of his inspirational teacher at Collège Calvin, Jean Pierre Étienne Vaucher ~

1822 portrait by Pierre-Louis Bouvier (1766 - 1836)
University of Geneva campus: Orangery in background was replaced by Wall of the Reformation in 1909
University of Geneva campus: Orangery in background was replaced by Wall of the Reformation in 1909


The official presentation of the particular algal species goes back to 1823. It has as its taxonomist Båstad-born Swedish botanist, phycologist (algae specialist), representative, and theologian Carl Adolph Agardh (January 13, 1785 – January 28, 1859), whose scientific diligence was so inspiring as to compel his son, Lund-born Swedish botanist, phycologist, and taxonomist Jacob Georg Agardh (December 8, 1813 – January 7, 1901), to equal him. The species name has as etymological origins the Latin feminine singular adjective litorea (“of or relating to the seashore”). It honors its coastal presence since the Vaucherian genus includes estuarine, freshwater, marine, and terrestrial species. Intertidal, littoral yellow green algae specifically inhabit coastal brackish and salt-marsh waters along:

  • Europe;

  • North America.


eastern emerald elysia (Elysia chlorotica)

Patrick Krug Cataloging Diversity in the Sacoglossa
Patrick Krug Cataloging Diversity in the Sacoglossa


Intertidal, littoral yellow green algae appear filamentous, stringy, and tubular. They attach to the ground through anti-drifting, rhizoid “hold-fasts.” They branch into hollow tubes. They do not subdivide into cross-walls except after injury or around reproductive organs. Chloroplasts, cytoplasm, nuclei, and nutrients flow smoothly through the Vaucherian algae's central, cytoplasm-filled, hollowed-out compartments known as vacuoles. Vaucherian yellow green algae have:

  • Beta-carotene;

  • Carotenoid diadinoxanthin;

  • Chlorophyll a and c.

They lack chlorophyll b and fucoxanthin. Reproduction may be carried out:

  • Asexually by fragmenting into floating small sections;

  • Sexually by the hook-shaped, slender male reproductive organ (antheridia) fertilizing the single egg cells of the spherical female reproductive organs (öogonia).

They serve as the preferred food sources of emerald sea slugs.  


Structure of Chlorophyll a molecule showing long hydrocarbon tail: Vaucheria litorea's chloroplasts (specialized cellular subunits) contain chlorophyll a, an essnetial photosynthetic pigment ~

Color code: Black = Carbon, C ~ White = Hydrogen, H ~ Red = Oxygen, O ~ Blue = Nitrogen, N ~ Green = Magnesium, Mg
Chemical image created with Discovery Studio Visualizer
Chemical image created with Discovery Studio Visualizer


The formal identification of emerald sea slugs dates to 1818. It draws upon the expertise of the Nice-born botanist and naturalist (April 8, 1777 – August 25, 1845) who is claimed by:

  • France as Antoine Joseph Risso for being bilingual in French and Niçard (Ligurian/Occitan language dialect) before French annexation of the subsequent Alpes Maritime’s departmental capital through the Treaty of Turin on March 24, 1860;
  • Italy as Antonio Giuseppe Risso for being the member of an ancient, Italian-speaking, noble family of the northwestern peninsula and Sardinia.

The genus name Elysia generally evokes the Elysian Fields, the resting place of ancient Greece’s benevolent and brave, even though here it specifies the slug’s leaf-like shape from fleshy lateral protrusions.


Augustus Addison Gould: physician and pioneer conchologist, posthumously recognized for taxonomic data in his masterpiece, Report on the Invertebrata

c.1860 albumen silver print by F.L. Lay
National Portrait Gallery, Washington
National Portrait Gallery, Washington


Beneficent and bold are adjectives which may or may not characterize Elysian sea slugs. The official taxonomy of the species goes back to 1870. It honors New Ipswich-born United Statesian physician Augustus Addison Gould (April 23, 1805 – September 15, 1866), as:

  • Conchologist (specialist through investigation of mollusc shells);
  • Malacologist (specialist through study of mollusc organisms).

The taxonomic date is posthumous to specify the information contained in the second edition -- released in 1870 -- of the above-mentioned scientist’s Report on the Invertebrata (from the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838 – 1842 under Lieutenant Charles Wilkes [April 3, 1798 – February 8, 1877]) -- originally published in 1841. The species name chlorotica recognizes the sacoglossan’s (sap-sucker) color (χλωρός [khlōrós, “green-yellow”]).


Martha's Vineyard, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, abounds in habitats favored by Elysia chlorotica: shallow creeks, salt marshes, tidal marshes, and tidal pools.

aerial view
aerial view


Emerald sea slugs frequent depths of 1.64 feet (0.5 meters) within coastal eastern North America’s:

  • Freshwater creeks and pools;
  • Tidal marshes 3 – 32% saline.

They experience life cycles and natural histories as:

  • Eggs hatching within 7 – 8 days;
  • Larval feeders on phytoplankton;
  • Red-spotted, brown-bodied juvenile feeders on algae 16 days.

Cross-copulating, self-fertilizing hermaphroditic adults have:

  • Paired eyes, parapodia (wings), and tentacles;
  • Radula (piercing tooth) to ingest algal cytoplasm and nuclei;
  • Red-spotted, white-veined bodies measuring 0.28 - 1.77 inches (7 – 45 millimeters);
  • Snail-like head and neck;
  • 10 – 12-month lifespans.

Until next spring’s egg-laying, they make chlorophyll by:

  • The kleptochemistry of “stolen” algal camouflage-friendly pigments and predator-toxic metabolites;
  • The kleptoplasty of “stolen” algal chloroplasts, anti-herbivory compounds, and photosynthesizing proteins.


Elysia chlorotica: "slender, tapering behind, with broad lateral expansions, folded and overlapping each other on the back when the animal is in motion" (A.A. Gould, p. 255)

on stone by Mary Peart
A.A. Gould, Report on the Invertebrata of Massachusetts (1870), Plate XVII, Figure 255
A.A. Gould, Report on the Invertebrata of Massachusetts (1870), Plate XVII, Figure 255



Like people and pets, emerald sea slugs end up resembling yellow green algae. As coastal plant-eaters, they give innovative twists to digesting favorite intertidal, littoral prey. They have coral-like, live-in food sources. But un-coral-like, they invade algal cells to extract chloroplasts. They keep kleptoplasts (abducted disks) in cells throughout their super-branched guts. These plant-like animals know how to:

  • Effectuate horizontal gene transfer since their DNA includes algal psbO genes for making photosynthesis-friendly proteins;
  • Manufacture chlorophyll;
  • Pass chlorophyll-making powers from parent to progeny since slug circulatory systems flow algal nuclear DNA directly into the slug’s hermaphroditic reproductive organs.

The implications of the above-mentioned skill set make emerald sea slugs animals of interest to wildlife-loving amateurs and professionals worldwide.


Elysia chlorotica: "very broad lateral expansions or wings, which, . . . when expanded, they have a broad ovate form, like a leaf with the border more or less undulating" (A.A. Gould, p. 256)

on stone by Mary Peart
A.A. Gould, , Report on the Invertebrata of Massachusetts (1870), Plate XVII, Figure 252
A.A. Gould, , Report on the Invertebrata of Massachusetts (1870), Plate XVII, Figure 252



My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.


The important activity of photosynthesis, in which Elysia chlorotica participates

SeaWiFS Global Biosphere September 1997 - August 1998: composite image of global distribution of primary photosynthesis production, both oceanic (mg/m3 chlorophyll a) and terrestrial; Dark red and blue-green indicate high photosynthetic activity.
SeaWiFS Project, Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE
SeaWiFS Project, Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE

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Martha's Vineyard is an ecosystem in which Elysia chlorotica thrive.

Up Island Autumn, Martha's Vineyard
Up Island Autumn, Martha's Vineyard
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

One Plus One Equals One: Symbiosis and the Evolution of Complex Life by John Archibald

page 163: "example of kleptoplastidy is in sea slugs such as Elysia chlorotica"
emerald sea slugs in books

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DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 10/07/2014, DerdriuMarriner
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


DerdriuMarriner on 10/07/2014

burntchestnut, For becoming acquainted with some of nature's bounty, it comes down to location, doesn't it? Perhaps some day you'll have an opportunity to see these slugs, which are quite unforgettable.

AngelaJohnson on 10/07/2014

I've never heard of the emerald sea slug, but I'm not around oceans or marshland.

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