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Embrace the Gulf 2020 – the sponges

We began this series on the Gulf talking about the Gulf itself.  We then moved to the big, more familiar – maybe more interesting animals, the vertebrates – birds, fish, etc.  In this edition we shift to the invertebrates – the “spineless” animals of the Gulf of Mexico.  Many of them we know from shell collecting along the beach, others are popular seafood choices, but most we know nothing about and rarely see.

Almost invisible, the gelatinous comb jelly drifts in the currents.
Photo: Sea Grant Collier County

They are numerous, on diversity alone – making up 90% of the animal kingdom.  They may leave remnants behind so that we know they are there.  They may be right in front of our faces, but we do not know what we are looking at.  They are incredibly important.  Providing numerous nutrient transport, and transfer, in the ecosystem – that would otherwise not exist.  They also provide a lot of ecological services that reduce toxins and waste.  One source suggests there are over 30 different phyla and over one million species of invertebrates.  In this series we will cover six major groups and we begin with the simplest of them all… the sponges.

 

For some, you may not know that sponges are actually alive.  For others, you knew this but were not sure what kind of creature it was.  Are they plants? Animals?  Just a sponge?

 

The answer is animal.  Yea…

We usually think of animals as having legs, running around, eating things and defecting in places – the kinds of things that make good animal planet shows.

Sponges…  would not make a great animal planet show.  What are you going to watch?  They appear to be doing nothing.  They sit on the ocean floor… and… well… that’s it, they sit on the ocean floor.  But they actually do a lot.

A vase sponge showing the large opening called an osculum.
Florida Sea Grant

They are considered animal because (a) their cells lack a cell wall – which plants have, and (b) they are heterotrophic… consumers… they have to hunt their food and cannot make it as plants do.

What do they eat?

Plankton.  Lots of plankton.  Looking at a sponge you would call it one animal, but it is actually a colony of specialized cells working as a unit to survive.  There are cells with flagella, called collar cells, that use these flagella to create currents that “suck” water into the body of the creature.  This is how they collect plankton.  The collar cells live in numerous channels throughout the sponge body connected to small pores all over the service of the sponge.  This is where they get their phylum Porifera.  As the water moves through the channels, the collar cells remove food and specialized cells called choanocytes release reproductive eggs called gemmules. All of the water eventually collects in a cavity, called the gastrovascular cavity where it exists the sponge through a large opening called an osculum.

This is how they eat and reproduce.

The anatomy of a sponge.
Flickr

The matrix, or tissue, of the sponge is held together by small, hard structures called spicules.  It sort of serves as a skeleton for the creature.  In different sponges the spicules are made of different materials, and this is how the creatures are divided into classes.  Some are made of calcium carbonate, like seashells.  Others are made of silica and are “glass-like”, and some made of a softer material called “spongin”, which are the ones we use to take baths with.  Today purchased sponges are synthetic, not natural – but you can still get natural sponges.

 

Many sponges are tiny, others are huge.  They all like seawater – not big fans of freshwater – and many produce mild toxins to defend the from predators.  They do have predators though – hawksbill sea turtles love them.  There is currently a lot of research going on using sponge toxins to kill cancer cells.  Who knows, the cure to some forms of cancer may lie in the cavity of the sponge.

 

Another cool thing about them is that their cavities provide a lot of space for other small creatures in the ocean.  Numerous species can be found in sponge tissue and cavities, utilizing this space as a habitat for themselves.

Florida Sea Grant

They are a major player in the development of reefs in the tropics and, like their counter parts coral, have experienced a decline due to over harvesting and harmful algal blooms.  There are efforts in the Florida Keys to grow new sponge in aquaculture facilities and “re-plant” in the ocean.  In the northern Gulf they are more associated with seagrass beds.

 

These are truly amazing creatures and the more we learn about them, the more amazing they become.

 

 

References:

 

Myriad World of the Invertebrates. EarthLife. https://www.earthlife.net/inverts/an-phyla.html.