Why aren't animals photosynthetic on earth? And what would make it plausible for them to evolve to be?

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    $\begingroup$ Please note that there are photosynthetic animals here on earth, like the golden jellyfish. weirdandfascinatingcreatures.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/… Okay, they use a little trick... $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 8:15
  • $\begingroup$ some salamanders have photosynthetic cells $\endgroup$
    – wim
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ relevant xkcd $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ Why bother? Let the stupid plants do all the work. Then eat them. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 0:58

5 Answers 5


For the record some animals practice kleptoplasty to gain photosynthetic powers. But beyond that:

Why aren't animals photosynthetic on earth?

  • Extra energy to grow the organelles.
  • Low efficiency.
  • No real gain relative to work; Creatures move a lot and burn calories like mad. Even at peak photosynthetic efficiency (which no plant on Earth has) then you'd still only walk away with 18.9 kcal/h for each square meter of skin.

And what would make it plausible for them to evolve to be?

  • Some new photosynthetic mechanism allows them to walk away with higher efficiency than 10%.
  • They have inherently large surface area and low volume.
  • They move really slowly.
  • The sun is really hot (plants may have evolved into quasi-creatures in a search for water).

Gas bag aliens are a surprisingly good bet for this as they meet 2 of the 4 plausibilities.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe an animal couldn't get all its energy needs from photosynthesis, but I see no reason why it couldn't supplement a more "normal" digestive system -- an animal that needs to eat fewer calories to achieve the same amount of energy would have a decided evolutionary advantage, especially in food-poor regions/climates, wouldn't it? $\endgroup$
    – Kromey
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Kromey The gain is too small relative to genetic fluctuation and solar power. If you're already required to have a "normal" digestive system and we say you can make 1 change, then you gain massive energy (in percentages) from optimizing digestion versus for gaining photosynthesis. Until you reach 100% energy at all times it makes sense to go for biggest gains. And after 100% there's no selection pressure. $\endgroup$
    – Black
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ Every biological system has an associate cost. That cost can be in energy or required behaviors e.g. standing out in the sun. If the energy acquired doesn't offset the cost, the system will never evolve. $\endgroup$
    – TechZen
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ I can see another reason for photosynthetic animals: Picture a reptile in a climate that gets cold in the winter. Photosynthesis could help keep them alive until spring when it's too cold for them to seek food normally. I think the limiting factor would be water. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 3:30
  • $\begingroup$ Add to my previous comment: Such a creature could only exist in a land with no warm-blooded creatures or it would be eaten. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 3:55

Random evolution

Evolution happens through randomly found routes. Just because it is possible for evolution to take a certain route, doesn't necessarily mean that it will happen to stumble upon it. Similarly, just because evolution hasn't taken a certain route doesn't necessarily mean it couldn't have (or that it won't in future).

Real world photosynthetic animals

As it happens, photosynthetic animals are not an example of something evolution hasn't stumbled upon. There are photosynthetic animals. Some of these, like the golden jellyfish, involve symbiosis with algae contained within the animal's body, but in contrast to this the oriental hornet converts sunlight directly into electrical energy using a pigment called xanthopterin, an entirely different approach to plants using chlorophyll. The pea aphid produces carotinoids, which animals were previously thought to be unable to make, requiring them to eat plants containing them instead. The aphid appears to be able to use the carotinoids it manufactures in order to produce ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), which animals use for energy transfer.

Not all of the claims are undisputed: for the various species of green sea slug it is not yet clear whether the chloroplasts that they incorporate into their body provide them with sugar for energy, lipids for cell building, or nothing (just stored as camouflage colouring and something to digest later).

Humans also use sunlight to drive chemical reactions, although not as a source of stored energy. Humans can produce vitamin D when their skin is exposed to sunlight.

Other types of light

Some fungi feed off gamma radiation from radioactive contamination. This further extends the range of different ways that another world could potentially evolve creatures that feed off light in the broader sense of electromagnetic radiation. In the case of gamma radiation such animals would either need quick reproduction (short generations) or else powerful mechanisms for reversing the damage done to their DNA.


There is no reason that mobile creatures could not evolve that use photosynthesis. On Earth animals have found several different approaches to harvesting energy from sunlight, but as far as we know all animals still need to eat. A world in which there are photosynthetic animals may have slow, low metabolic rate animals that live almost entirely off sunlight, and may also have fast, high metabolic rate animals that use sunlight to supplement their diet.

  • $\begingroup$ Can you comment on why animals aren't photosynthetic in the first place? I assume that we have a direct ancestor that was photosynthetic and lost the trait at some point, but my phylogenetics is really weak. $\endgroup$
    – octern
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 6:26
  • $\begingroup$ Since photosynthesis was already evolved when there were only bacteria, I guess the difference between animals and plants is basically the result of different evolutionary pressures that acted on organisms with and without the ability to do photosynthesis. For example, for organisms relying on photosynthesis, it didn't make sense to expend much energy on hunting other organisms when they just could sit there and harvest the energy from the sun. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 7:12
  • $\begingroup$ @celtschk yes I suppose mobile creatures might be more likely to evolve from ancestors that cannot photosynthesise, so photosynthetic animals might be expected to have developed that ability late in their evolution (long after settling on a mobile way of life). $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ @octern fungi & animals are descended from an ancestor that split from the ancestor of plants before they were photosynthetic. After that split, an ancestor of all plants absorbed a photosynthetic microbe into its single cell, which became incorporated as part of the cell, eventually becoming chloroplasts that can no longer survive outside the plant cell. The ancestor of fungi & animals had already split off from the ancestor of plants so fungi & animals never had the ability to photosynthesise in the first place - they didn't lose it. Animals that use sunlight are a much more recent change. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Anixx I've read my answer in light of your comments and I can see my statement about there being no known photosynthetic fungi is contradictory since I include symbiotic animals as photosynthetic examples. I've edited to remove that statement. Thank you :) $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 19:12

From the viewpoint of evolutionary dynamics, the reason why very few species are both autotrophic (photosynthesizing) and heterotrophic (hunting / foraging on other living organism) at the same times is that these two lifestyles tend to require quite different adaptations.

One notable example is motility. Efficient foraging organisms typically need to move, but movement consumes a lot of energy, which require a relatively high-intensity energy source, like consuming other organisms. Meanwhile, a photosynthetic organism rarely needs to move, but, with the low energy density available from photosynthesis, it also cannot afford to move much. Thus, in general, animals and other foragers tend to be actively mobile, while plants and other photosynthesizers tend to be sessile (or free-floating).

As a result, there are few fitness maxima between these two lifestyles. A creature with such a hybrid lifestyle can usually increase it fitness via mutations that improve its foraging efficiency at the expense of photosynthesis, or vice versa, and so evolution tends to drive such species (if they survive) towards one end of the spectrum or the other — either losing its photosynthetic ability to become a pure heterotroph, or becoming fully dependent on it, and thus a pure autotroph.

That said, among the countless species found on Earth, there are certainly some exception to this general rule, perhaps the most notable among them being Euglena and some related protists, many of which have functioning chloroplasts and practice both photosynthesis and phagocytosis.

The notable aspect of Euglena is that their mixotrophic lifestyle appears to be permanent, insofar as their chloroplasts reproduce within the host organism, and are passed down from parent to offspring. It appears that, for Euglena, this unusual lifestyle may be useful because it helps them survive and reproduce efficiently under variable environmental conditions, as they can switch between an active foraging mode and a passive, mainly photosynthetic mode depending on the relative availability of food and sunlight.

Another relatively common class of exceptions are kleptoplastic species, like the "photosynthetic sea slugs" mentioned in some of the other answers. These are animal (or heterotrophic protist) species that don't grow their own chloroplasts, but can harvest them from plants or algae they consume, retaining the functional chloroplasts (or, in some cases, whole algal cells) within their body for at least some time. Most such species are primarily heterotrophs, but the ability to retain harvested chloroplasts within their body apparently gives them some survival advantage, at least as an emergency energy / nutrition reserve, if nothing else.

Besides these living examples, there's also evidence that the evolution from a combined phagocytic + photosynthetic lifestyle to essentially pure photosynthesis has happened several times on Earth. In particular, the endosymbiotic theory of chloroplast evolution, which is nowadays all but universally accepted among biologists, states that all eukaryotic plants and algae are descended from an phagocytic ancestor that engulfed and retained photosynthetic cyanobacteria in a symbiotic arrangement, much like Euglena today. Eventually, adapting to a photosynthetic lifestyle, this hybrid organism lost the ability to forage for food, becoming totally dependent on its chloroplast symbionts for energy.

In fact, there's even evidence that this process was later repeated several times, with eukaryotic algae (with their own chloroplasts) being absorbed and retained by other phagocytic protists, most of which (with the notable exception of the euglenozoans, as noted above) in turn also evolved to become fully dependent on their photosynthetic endosymbionts, and lost the ability to forage for food. Typically, the algal endosymbionts then shrunk over time, as more and more of their functions were taken over by the host cell, becoming little more than simple chloroplasts themselves, but in many cases their cell membranes, and sometimes a remnant of their nucleus, remain and still reveal their origin.


One possibility that has not yet been mentioned (actually inspired from githubphagocyte's comment on how the evolution of plants began in the first place): It could be that the animal doesn't do photosynthesis itself, but lives in symbiosis with a plant living on its surface. Probably not a macroscopic plant, but a single-celled one (so it basically grows in the skin).

A way how that could have been started: An ancestor animal is plagued by some parasite, say a fungus. Now it happens that an ancestor of the plant, which grows in larger amounts at certain places, effectively forming a green film on the ground there) produces a fungicide (to protect itself from other fungi) which also is effective against that specific parasite fungus. Because of this, that animal evolves the habit to rub its skin on the floor where those plants live.

Inevitably, this means that some of those plants will stick to the skin, which actually benefits both the animal (the plant sticking longer on the skin means better protection from the fungus) and the plant (because the animal will carry it to new places to grow at). So over time, it will be perfectly normal that those animals will be coated with plants, although there's not yet any other connection.

However, as the plants adapt to living at least part time on that animal's skin, they may evolve to draw water out of the animal's skin (which allows them to survive longer periods on the animal). As long as they don't draw too much water, the fungus protection the plants provide will still be more benefit than the extra water the plants draw from the animal (especially if the animal has no problems finding more water to drink).

However now the plants will be independent of eventually getting on the floor, as they can easily live just on the animal alone; transfer from one animal to the other can happen due to the animals rubbing their skin on each other (which may happen a lot for social animals, and will inevitable happen for young mammals drinking their mother's milk). Therefore the plants may over time lose the ability to grow on the floor (where they have lots of competition from other plants, which they don't have on that animal's skin). In that process, the plants will likely also develop stronger connections to the animal's skin.

Now the plant cells will probably develop a way to transport water and nutrients between them, because the cells entering the skin (and this tapping the water) will not have as much exposure to sunlight, while the outer cells will be exposed to the sun light, but not have a good water source. Now since inter-cell transport of photosynthesis products from the production places on the surface to the lower cells living in between animal cells happens, it is not unlikely that the animal will develop also a way to tap that nutrient resource for its own metabolism.

At this point the symbiotic "plant-animal" is complete.


From User2813274 comment, XKCD has talked about why an animal would not do this.

To the question, If cows could photosynthesize, how much less food would they need?

In a way, they already do. A field of grass sits there all day soaking up energy from the sun and storing it chemically. A grazing animal can then come along and absorb weeks of accumulated energy in a matter of minutes.


A Jersey cow presents in the neighborhood of nearly two square meters of usable space to the sun if it stands right. (Cows would have to be trained to stand optimally, but we might not have too far to go; research suggests they already align themselves north-south.

Chlorophyll photosynthesis extracts 3%-6% of the total energy from sunlight. If we figure on any given day the cow gets the equivalent of about six hours of peak sunlight, it works out to less than two million joules of usable energy each day.


Is that a lot? Well, a 450-kilogram cow just wandering around in a field might eat about 10 kilograms of dry matter a day, extracting on the order of 50 million joules of metabolic energy. So photosynthesis could only make up about 4% of the required intake—saving only a few handfuls of grain.

If we could equip cows with solar panels, which can be several times more energy-efficient than photosynthesis, we could improve that number—but not by much.


The basic problem facing cows is the same one facing solar cars—they're too small. If you saw the world's cattle population in silhouette, they'd have an overall cross-sectional area of about two thousand square kilometers. This means that if they were migrating through the air over Rhode Island (biology is not my strong suit), they'd blot out the sun over barely half the state. They'd only catch enough sunlight to produce a daily average of about 40 gigawatts of power (two megayodas).

By contrast, about 3% of the world's surface area is cultivated, which means that (given rough estimates of geographic distribution of farmland) our crops easily intercept over a thousand times more sunlight than our cattle—which is why grazing is a good strategy.

Hope this helps with your design

  • $\begingroup$ You could grow grass on the cow. That helps you understand how little surface area it has compared to what it grazes. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 20:59

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