Sea anemones sit on rocks, gently waving their tentacles back and forth, catching floating prey like larvae, plankton and… ants?


A team of US-based researchers used a method called ‘DNA metabarcoding’ to identify the gut contents of 12 giant plumose anemones (Metridium farcimen). They found that the anemones ate a lot of crab and barnacle larvae, small crustaceans called copepods and, surprisingly, insects.

The scientists first extracted genetic material from partially digested food in the anemones’ guts, then compared this information to DNA databases of various organisms. This method allowed them to accurately analyse what species the anemones had been eating, and they were also able to identify rare or degraded prey items.

“We’ve greatly expanded the list of things we know that they eat. They’re eating whatever they can catch, whatever isn’t too big or too small, whatever can’t swim away,” said first author Dr Christopher Wells, a postdoctoral researcher in the University at Buffalo. “One of the most surprising results is that in addition to all the usual suspects you’d find in marine plankton, we also found that a part of the diet – about 10 per cent at the time of the study – consisted of ants, which are not marine.”

As the name suggests, giant plumose anemones are huge, measuring up to a metre in height. The body consists of a tall column that’s topped with fluffy, white, cauliflower-like tentacles. The anemones use these tentacles to collect food, which they shovel into their mouth.

The anemones live in the eastern Pacific Ocean from Alaska down to California, where they sit on rocks or other surfaces. It is important for researchers to decipher exactly what animals eat, in order to fully understand marine communities and ecosystems.

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“When a plankton community floats overtop a bed of anemones, the plankton is filtered by millions of grasping tentacles,” Wells said. “This can drastically change the composition of the plankton community, which is food for many economically important animals such as bivalves and fish.”

The researchers identified the ants as being a pale-legged field ant (Lasius pallitarsis). As the ants were unexpected items on the menu, the researchers did a little digging to come up with a possible explanation for how these insects ended up in the sea.

They carried out the research in August, when the ants have mating flights. “They produce winged queens and drones, which mate and make new colonies. They’re not strong fliers and the wind pushes them around, potentially into the water,” said Wells.

Anemones found near to each other seemed to have different diets, but that’s not because one prefers snacking on ants, while another finds plankton to be tastier. “They eat what they can, and it’s very patchy what they get, depending on what’s there,” said Wells.


As well as ants, the researchers were surprised to find the occasional bit of spider DNA in the anemones’ guts. However, they also noted that some of the DNA sequences could not be matched with any known species, reiterating just how much is still waiting to be discovered in the oceans.

Reader Q&A: Is it true that the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans don't mix?

Asked by: Sonia Cooke, Northampton

While we’ve given our planet’s oceans separate names, in reality there’s no border between them, and currents continually flow between them and mix their waters. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans ‘meet’ at the southernmost tip of South America. In this region, a strong current carries water from west to east, sweeping water from the Pacific into the Atlantic.

The videos you may have seen online showing two different coloured bodies of water drifting alongside each other are actually showing light-coloured, sediment-rich freshwater from melted glaciers meeting dark, salty ocean water in the Gulf of Alaska (and over time, currents and eddies cause these to mix, too).

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Alice Lipscombe-SouthwellManaging editor, BBC Science Focus

Alice is the managing editor at BBC Science Focus Magazine. She has a BSc in zoology with marine zoology. Her interests include natural history, wildlife, the outdoors, health and fitness.