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Marine biologists discover how sandworms (aka sea slugs) eat sand
June 27, 2015
A team of scientists led by the University of Bristol have discovered how sea slugs or sandworms (aka sand shrimp) break down sand to eat it and put it to good use in life.
For the first time, this specialist group of animals has been studied under the microscope to reveal the complex internal workings of their digestion system.
The study, which is published today in the journal PLOS One, presents the first detailed evidence of the gut anatomy of two species of sea slug, and tests the theory that the specialized, tube-shaped gut and feeding style provide these so-called’sandworms’ with protection against stomach disorders.
The sea slugs’ unique anatomy has caught the attention of scientists for a long time, but this study is the first to reveal the stomach of the animals in detail.
The tubes and chambers of the stomach — known as the ‘digestive tract’ — are strongly linked to the feeding mechanisms of these sluggish animals.
Using a microscope, the Bristol scientists show how the internal organs help to process and feed sandworms, and how the digestive tracts of sandworms are adapted to better grab and absorb food particles.
Dr. Ross Aldridge, from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “The sandworm anatomy is very unusual. It is tube-shaped, and the walls are all secreted — they’re made of calcium carbonate, like coral.
“The guts are all tightly joined together into a network and look like an enormous tube. There are channels and chambers to help the slugs feed and then absorb nutrients.
“It is a very sophisticated system and these sea slugs have been around for a very long time, but it’s the first time we’ve been able to examine them in detail at the cellular level.”
The team imaged the digestive tracts of two related species of Calcinus, using a method called ‘fluorescent staining’ to highlight the presence of particular proteins.
The image, shown in black and white, reveals