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San Diego study shows a small animal can have a big impact on the climate

A San Diego researcher thinks a jelly-like animal that lives in the world’s oceans can have an impact on the ocean carbon cycle.

Salps are a gelatinous animal that feed on phytoplankton near the ocean surface. The species studied off the coast of New Zealand range from a fraction of an inch to about five inches long.

Salps can reproduce very quickly when they encounter a food source and they are very efficient eating machines.


Salp pellets full of carbon in the photo from 2018
Scripps Institution of Oceangraphy
Salp pellets full of carbon in the photo from 2018.

“Because they combine swimming with eating, they are able to filter hundreds of liters of water per day,” said Moira Décima, an assistant professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “(Salps) pull out the particles from that water. Then from that they make these really large heavy, fast sinking fecal pellets.”

Those pellets sink quickly into deep ocean waters where the carbon is essentially removed from the systems that transfers carbon between the ocean and atmosphere near the surface. The process is just one way carbon is turned into a solid and deposited deep into the ocean.

“They just are delivered to depth,” Décima said. “And the deeper that they get delivered the longer the carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere.”

Salp collected on a research cruise near New Zealand in 2015
Scripps Institution of Oceangraphy
Salp collected on a research cruise near New Zealand in 2015.

When the salps feast on a phytoplankton bloom, that can have significant impacts on the ocean. When the animals find food, they immediately begin reproducing, first asexually and then when numbers grow, sexually.


That rapid reproduction can turn the ocean into jelly, completely full of feeding salps.

“They can grow really fast because of this,” Décima said.

And that means this hungry little animal can actually have an impact on something as complex as the climate. Researchers found that salps can account for a two to eight fold increase in carbon sequestration.

“One reason why they can have really important effects when they’re in an ecosystem is because they can make a bloom which means they can achieve really high population growth over a short period of time,” Décima said.

The gelatinous animals are not always present in large numbers, but when they are then they can impact the carbon cycle and the food web on a fairly large scale.

Salp abundance in the Southern Ocean grew significantly between 1920 and 2000.

The findings are published in the Journal Nature Communications.