(From the New York Times / by Joanna Klein) — Meet the sea salp. It typically lives in deep waters, where its barrel-shaped body glides around the ocean by jet propulsion, sucking in water from a siphon on one end and spitting it back though another. It swims alone for part of its life. But it spends the rest of it with other salps, linked together in chains arranged as wheels, lines or other architectural designs.
“They’re totally cool, and totally beautiful to watch underwater,” said Kelly Sutherland, a marine biologist at the University of Oregon.
Over years of watching them swim in chains, she made a surprising discovery. They synchronize their strokes when threatened by predators or strong waves and currents. But while linked together in day-to-day life, each salp in the chain swims at its own asynchronous and uncoordinated pace. Counterintuitively, this helps salps that form linear chains make long nightly journeys more efficiently. She and a colleague, Daniel Weihs, an aerospace engineer at the Israel Institute of Technology, presented their findings on Wednesday in Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
The life story of the sea salp is peculiar. Each one starts life as a female, then switches to male and never switches back, but no one knows why.
“The story with a lot of the things I work with is fact is always stranger than fiction,” said Dr. Sutherland. “You couldn’t make this stuff up.”
Making chains is part of their life cycle, and if these chains break, they don’t link back together. Each salp lives only a few days or a month in two stages: solitary, and in a colonial chain. A solitary salp gives rise to a colony of genetically identical salps asexually. The salps are connected in a chain that starts as a coil around the solitary salp’s gut. It grows over time and eventually breaks free, the beginning of the colony phase. Each individual within the chain will reproduce sexually. Through spawning, a male’s sperm reaches a female’s egg, forming a baby solitary salp that eventually swims out of its parent. “That solitary will make a chain and so on,” said Dr. Sutherland. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg kind of situation.
Perhaps to enhance a salp’s reproductive success, many salps migrate vertically, from the deep sea toward its top at night and back down during the day. At the surface, they can congregate with a greater chance that the sperm of one hits an egg of the same species.
And salps in linear chains are particularly skilled at this migration, traveling thousands of feet each night, at speeds around 10 body-lengths a second. “That’s like running a marathon every day,” said Dr. Sutherland.
You might think that fast synchronized, coordinated swimming strokes would be the way to make that happen. But each salp in the chain pumps to the rhythm of its own built-in pacemaker.
The resulting swim isn’t as fast, but it’s smooth and sustainable, with less interference from the wakes made by individuals. It’s like the difference between a Porsche and a Prius, said Dr. Sutherland. A Porsche can accelerate quickly to top speeds, but a Prius is more fuel-efficient.