Most of us have at some time stared in fascination at the life contained within the pools that form on rocky shores at low tide. But none of us realized that a whole new class of ecological interaction was taking place!
The 12,000 or so described (and many un-named) seaweeds are incredibly important organisms. Their diverse and abundant photosynthesizing fronds make them one of the main primary producers in coastal seas, creating food and habitat for a huge range of animals. Not only that, but some – the coralline seaweeds – lock up vast amount of CO2 as calcium carbonate and help to create reef systems in the same way as coral.
Although scientists have studied seaweeds for hundreds of years, many aspects of their ecology are still unknown. Their detailed mode of reproduction, for example has only been studied in a small proportion of species.
In a newly published study in the journal Science, French PhD researcher Emma Lavaut and her colleagues have shown that small isopod crustaceans – relatives of woodlice and sea slaters – facilitate the movement of the equivalent of seaweed sperm (termed “spermatia”) from male to female reproductive structures in just the same way that bees and other pollinators move pollen between flowers, so fertilizing female gametes.
Your read that correctly: some seaweeds have pollinators!
It’s an incredible finding! And the implications of this are enormous: Emma and her colleagues have added a whole new branch of life to the examples of sedentary (fixed-place) organisms that require a third party to enable their reproduction. In addition to being a fascinating biological discovery, it has significant environmental and sustainability implications.
Seaweeds are a diverse group of macroalgae that appeared more than one billion years ago, at least 500 million years before the evolution of what we think of as “true” plants, such as the flowering plants, conifers, cycads, ferns and mosses. Sexual reproduction in the brown and green seaweeds, which include kelps, wracks and sea lettuces, involves spermatia that are mobile and use a flagellum to swim through the water to seek out female reproductive structures. However, Emma studied a seaweed, Gracilaria gracilis, which belongs to the Rhodophyta or red seaweeds, and none of the species in this group have these swimming sperm equivalents.
Sexual reproduction in the red seaweeds has therefore always been something of a mystery. Three quarters of species have separate male and female individuals and so they cannot mate with themselves. It was assumed that the gametes were just released into water currents that haphazardly transported them to the female reproductive organs, much as wind pollinated grasses and pine trees release their vast clouds of pollen on land. The authors of this new study, however, point out that most sexual reproduction by these red seaweeds takes place in the relatively still waters of rock pools, a habitat that they mimicked in the laboratory in a series of elegant aquarium experiments.
The isopod crustaceans are attracted to the seaweed because they provide a habitat away from predators and a supply of food: they graze on the microalgae that colonise the seaweed’s fronds. Picking up spermatia and moving them between fronds is a side-effect of this activity by the small invertebrates. As you can see from the illustration above, the isopods and the seaweed are engaged in a “double mutualism“: a plus sign (+) indicates a positive effect of one species on another, while a minus sign (-) indicates a negative impact.
What I find especially fascinating about this research is that both the seaweed (Gracilaria gracilis) and the isopod (Idotea balthica) were originally described as species more than 200 years ago. They also have an extremely wide distribution. The isopod is found around the coasts of Europe and down the eastern seaboard of the Americas. The seaweed is pretty much found globally. These are not rare, unusual species, yet the interaction between them has only just been discovered! This is a point that I made in my recent book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society: quite often, species that are well known interact in previously undocumented ways because no one has had the time or inspiration to look closely at them.
Although the idea that small sea creatures might be helping seaweeds to reproduce sounds very fanciful, there is a precedence for this discovery. Back in 2016, in a paper published in Nature Communications, a group of Mexican researchers led by Brigitta van Tussenbroek showed that a species of seagrass is pollinated by a diverse assemblage of small crustaceans and polychaete worms. Seagrasses are flowering plants, not seaweeds, but clearly this type of mutually beneficial relationship can exist between different species in the oceans.
Rhodophyta are the most diverse group of seaweeds, with more than 7,000 known species. They are especially abundant on coastal shores, oceanic habitats that are under huge pressure from infrastructure development, pollution, and climate change. At the same time, these seaweeds are economically important and millions of tonnes of them are collected every year as food, as nutritional and pharmaceutical supplements, and to produce agar. In order to conserve these seaweed populations, we need to better understand their ecology and their environmental requirements.
The work by Emma Lavaut and colleagues suggests that interactions with their “pollinators” may be a critical aspect of this understanding. In the same way that “Save the Bees” has been a rallying call for conserving interactions between species on land, we may soon hear this message echoed in “Save the Isopods”. At the very least, I have to add a new section to the second edition of my book!
Full disclosure: I was one of the reviewers of the original manuscript submitted to Science by Emma and her co-authors. It’s a rare privilege to review a study and think: “Wow! This is a game-changer!” and including this paper it’s happened to me only a handful of times. The editors at Science kindly invited my colleague Dr Zong-Xin Ren and myself to write a Perspective piece about the work and we were delighted to do so.
Image credits: Isopod and diatom images from Lavaut et al (2022). Gracilaria image by Emoody26 at English Wikipedia CC BY 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3455016. Design by Shijia Wen and Jeff Ollerton.