Suction Feeding by Small Organisms: Performance Limits in Larval Vertebrates and Carnivorous Plants

Stephen M. Deban*, Roi Holzman, Ulrike K. Müller

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Suction feeding has evolved independently in two highly disparate animal and plant systems, aquatic vertebrates and carnivorous bladderworts. We review the suction performance of animal and plant suction feeders to explore biomechanical performance limits for aquatic feeders based on morphology and kinematics, in the context of current knowledge of suction feeding. While vertebrates have the greatest diversity and size range of suction feeders, bladderworts are the smallest and fastest known suction feeders. Body size has profound effects on aquatic organismal function, including suction feeding, particularly in the intermediate flow regime that tiny organisms can experience. A minority of tiny organisms suction feed, consistent with model predictions that generating effective suction flow is less energetically efficient and also requires more flow-rate specific power at small size. Although the speed of suction flows generally increases with body and gape size, some specialized tiny plant and animal predators generate suction flows greater than those of suction feeders 100 times larger. Bladderworts generate rapid flow via high-energy and high-power elastic recoil and suction feed for nutrients (relying on photosynthesis for energy). Small animals may be limited by available muscle energy and power, although mouth protrusion can offset the performance cost of not generating high suction pressure. We hypothesize that both the high energetic costs and high power requirements of generating rapid suction flow shape the biomechanics of small suction feeders, and that plants and animals have arrived at different solutions due in part to their different energy budgets.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)852-863
Number of pages12
JournalIntegrative and Comparative Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2020


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