How Yellow-Spotted Salamanders Photosynthesize
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How Yellow-Spotted Salamanders Photosynthesize

By Luna Reyes Castro

Before 2011, it was thought that only plants could photosynthesize and that some invertebrates, such as slugs, aphids, and hornets could do it with the help of symbiotic algae. Scientists thought it would be impossible for vertebrates to photosynthesize, believing that the immune system of such creatures would reject symbiosis and destroy the foreign substance entering their bodies. What scientists didn’t realize is that vertebrates can also participate in symbiotic relationships with organisms who can photosynthesize—like algae—and gain carbohydrates and oxygen from photosynthesis that way.

It was scientist Ryan Kerney who discovered that the yellow-spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) evolved to have such a relationship. The yellow-spotted salamander is black with, as its name suggests, bright yellow spots. Yellow-spotted salamanders lay eggs in ponds of water without fish to protect them from getting damaged or infected by larvae. However, fish-free ponds have lower levels of oxygen, resulting in the embryos needing another source of energy and oxygen. They have evolved over time to fill this need by relying on algae, which can photosynthesize.

The algae is located inside the cells in the embryo, turning it bright green. The algae mostly enters the embryo once its nervous system is already developed, but they have also been found inside the oviducts of female spotted salamanders. The algae attach themselves to the mitochondria inside the cells, as the mitochondria is responsible for using oxygen and other biological molecules to produce energy. The algae perform photosynthesis and give the oxygen and carbohydrates produced to the salamander cells. The salamander helps the algae by giving them the byproducts of energy production, carbon dioxide and nitrogen-rich waste, which are delicious food for the algae. 

Yellow-spotted salamanders are truly magnificent creatures! This incredible discovery enriches our understanding of how this animal has evolved over time, and underscores the beauty and importance of symbiotic relationships in nature.


Motivans, E. (2023, June 16). The Yellow-Spotted Salamander: The Only Known Solar-Powered Vertebrate. ZME Science.

Yong, E. (2021, May 3). Solar Salamanders Have Algae in Their Cells. Science, National Geographic.

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