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Overview

Brief Summary

Introduction

Sponges (phylum Porifera) are an exclusively aquatic and, with a few exceptions (Vacelet and Boury-Esnault 1995), a filter-feeding group of animals. The group consists of approximately 15,000 extant species in three distinct groups (Hooper and van Soest 2002):

  • the glass sponges (Class Hexactinellida)
  • the calcareous sponges (Class Calcarea)
  • the demosponges (Class Demospongiae)

Adult sponges can be asymmetrical or radially symmetrical and come in a variety of sizes, colors, and shapes, including arboresecent (tree-like), flabellate (fan-shaped), caliculate (cup shaped), tubular (tube shaped), globular (ball shaped), and amorphous (shapeless) among others. Sponges occupy both freshwater and marine environments, from shallow to abysmal depths, and are common in coral reef, mangroves, and seagrass ecosystems. In some places (e.g., Lake Baikal, Russia) sponges dominate benthic communities and along the pacific cost of North America they form modern sponge reefs.

General Design

The body plan of a sponge is simple (e.g., De Vos et al. 1991): a single outer layer of cells (the pinacoderm) separates the inner cellular region (mesohyl) from the external environment. The pinacoderm lines the internal canals and is eventually replaced by the choanoderm, a layer of characteristic flagellated collar cells (choanocytes) grouped in chambers. Choanocytes make up the principle ‘pump’ and’ filter’ of the system, driving water through the sponge, trapping and phagocytizing suspended bacteria and other particulate food, which is then digested and nutrients distributed among the cells of the mesohyl that facilitate the functions of feeding, respiration and reproduction. The flow of water inside a sponge is unidirectional: the water is drawn in through tiny pores (ostia) in the pinacoderm and exits through one or more larger openings (osculae). The aquiferous system of a sponge is usually supported by a combination of two types of skeletal elements: mineral spicules (either calcareous or siliceous) and special protein fibers (spongin), although either one or both of these elements can be absent.

The 19th-century discovery of a remarkable similarity between porifera-specific choanocytes and free-living choanoflagellates led to a proposition that sponges are the most primitive metazoans, evolved from choanoflagellate-like protist ancestors (Clark 1866; Clark 1868). The ancient origin of sponges is corroborated by the existence of a poriferan fossil record going back to the Early Vendian (~580 Mya) (Li, Chen, and Hua 1998), and by sponge biomarker record going back to the Cryogenian period (~750 Mya) (Love et al. 2009).

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Description

Sponges are an animal phylum consisting of around 5000-8000 known species (4,6)—and perhaps as many as 15,000 to 24,000 including those not yet described (2,6)—that live all around the world (5). They can be found in both marine and freshwater environments at any depth, though especially in coral reefs, mangrove habitats, and seagrass ecosystems (2). These creatures come in a huge array of colors and sizes (2,5,6)—measuring anywhere from 0.5 inches (1.3 cm) to 70 inches (178 cm) (6)—and can have bodies with shapes that resemble trees, cups, tubes, fans, balls, shapeless blobs, and more (2). Despite this great diversity in appearance, all sponges share a physical feature unique among animals: they have cells that can move freely and change forms, allowing the sponges to continuously reshape their bodies(1,2). Also, nearly all sponges have a body-plan that enables a simple lifestyle known as filter-feeding (2,6). (The exceptions are a group of sponges which are carnivorous, feeding on small crustaceans (5,7)). A filter-feeding sponge pumps water through pores in the outer layer of cells that surrounds its body and draws small food particles such as bacteria out of the water that comes in (1,2,4,5,6). The water keeps flowing in the same direction through a network of canals until it exits the sponge via one or more holes in the sponge’s body (1,2). Although early animal lineage patterns are still unresolved (2), the very simplistic animals of the sponge phylum may in fact have been the first multicellular animals to appear on Earth (2,6), probably descending from organisms similar to modern choanoflagellates 635-750 million years ago (2,3).

  • 1. “Introduction to Porifera. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 15 Aug. 2011. http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/porifera/porifera.html
  • 2. Lavrov, Dennis. “Porifera: Sponges.” Tree of Life Web Project. 2009. 15 Aug. 2011. http://tolweb.org/Porifera/2464
  • 3. Love, Gordon D., Emmanuelle Grosjean, Charlotte Stalvies, David A. Fike, John P. Grotzinger, Alexander S. Bradley, Amy E. Kelly, Maya Bhatia, William Meredith, Colin E. Snape, Samuel A. Bowring, Daniel J. Condon, and Roger E. Summons. “Fossil Steroids Record the Appearance of Demospongiae during the Cryogenian Period.” Nature 457.7230 (2009): 718-721.
  • 4. Myers, Phil. “Phylum Porifera: Sponges.” Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. 2001. 15 Aug. 2011. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Porifera.html
  • 5. “Porifera: Life History and Ecology.” University of California Museum of Paleontology. 15 Aug. 2011. http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/porifera/poriferalh.html
  • 6. Thakur, Narsinh L. and Werner E. G. Müller. “Biotechnology Potential of Marine Sponges.” Current Science 86.11 (2004): 1506-1512.
  • 7. Vacelet, J. and N. Boury-Esnault. “Carnivorous Sponges.” Nature 373.6512 (1995): 333-335.
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Introduction

When you think about a sponge, you probably think of something used to wash the dishes in your home. But, believe it or not, sponges are also a group of water-dwelling animals with about 5000-8000 known species (4,6)—and perhaps as many as 15,000 to 24,000 including those not yet discovered (2,6) —that actually have a lot in common with the squishy, water-absorbing things sitting next to your kitchen sink! These strange creatures, which live around the world (5) in oceans and smaller bodies of waters at both shallow and deep levels (2), come in all colors and sizes (2,5,6,) from half an inch (1.3 cm) to five feet and ten inches (178 cm) (6). Their bodies can have shapes that resemble cups, tubes, fans, trees, balls, shapeless blobs, and more (2). But whatever their shape, all sponges share an amazing physical feature that no other animals have: the cells that make up sponges’ bodies can move around freely and change forms, allowing sponges to constantly reshape their bodies (1,2). Most sponges also have special bodies adapted to a lifestyle known as filter-feeding (2,6). (The exceptions are a bizarre group of sponges which are carnivorous, feeding on small crustaceans (5,7)). Filter-feeding sponges pump water into their bodies through special holes, draw small food particles such as bacteria out of the water that comes in, and then let the water keep flowing through a network of canals until it leaves the sponge through one or more other holes (1,2,4,5,6). If you think this sounds pretty simple, you’re right. Sponges are so simplistic they may be the most ancient animals on Earth (2,3,6)!

  • 1. “Introduction to Porifera. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 15 Aug. 2011. http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/porifera/porifera.html
  • 2. Lavrov, Dennis. “Porifera: Sponges.” Tree of Life Web Project. 2009. 15 Aug. 2011. http://tolweb.org/Porifera/2464
  • 3. Love, Gordon D., Emmanuelle Grosjean, Charlotte Stalvies, David A. Fike, John P. Grotzinger, Alexander S. Bradley, Amy E. Kelly, Maya Bhatia, William Meredith, Colin E. Snape, Samuel A. Bowring, Daniel J. Condon, and Roger E. Summons. “Fossil Steroids Record the Appearance of Demospongiae during the Cryogenian Period.” Nature 457.7230 (2009): 718-721.
  • 4. Myers, Phil. “Phylum Porifera: Sponges.” Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. 2001. 15 Aug. 2011. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Porifera.html
  • 5. “Porifera: Life History and Ecology.” University of California Museum of Paleontology. 15 Aug. 2011. http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/porifera/poriferalh.html
  • 6. Thakur, Narsinh L. and Werner E. G. Müller. “Biotechnology Potential of Marine Sponges.” Current Science 86.11 (2004): 1506-1512.
  • 7. Vacelet, J. and N. Boury-Esnault. “Carnivorous Sponges.” Nature 373.6512 (1995): 333-335.
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Comprehensive Description

Characteristics

Traditionally, sponges have been regarded as a monophyletic group defined by several synapomorphies (Hooper, Van Soest, and Debrenne 2002), including the presence of:

  1. choanocytes
  2. an aquiferous system with external pores
  3. mineral spicules
  4. high cellular mobility and totipotency

The latter feature is often considered to be the most important (Lévi 1999). Indeed, the sponge body is unique among animals because it continuously remolds itself to fine-tune its filter-feeding system. The constant rearrangement of the body is accomplished by the amoeboid movements of cells inside the sponge and their change from one differentiated form to another.

Although often considered immobile, sponges also display several behavioral patterns (resulting from coordinated movements of cells), including crawling, production of filamentous body extensions and body contractions (Nickel 2004). It is also often mentioned that sponges lack many characteristics associated with other animals, including a mouth, sensory organs, organized tissues and neurons and muscle cells, which are otherwise ubiquitous in Metazoa. It is difficult to say, however, whether the lack of aforementioned features represents a primitive condition of sponges or a secondary loss due to their sedentary and water-filtering lifestyle. Indeed, a recent study has shown that the homoscleromorph sponges possess several characteristics thought to be absent in sponges, including the presence of true epithelia (Boury-Esnault et al. 2003). Another study has found that although sponges do not have neurons, their genome contains most of the components needed to build a post-synaptic protein scaffold that is essential for neural impulse transduction in other animals (Sakarya et al. 2007).

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Ecology

Associations

Animal / predator
Cerithiopsis tubercularis is predator of Porifera

Animal / predator
Fissurellidae is predator of Porifera

Animal / predator
Triphora peversa is predator of Porifera

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Known predators

  • J. N. Kremer and S. W. Nixon, A Coastal Marine Ecosystem: Simulation and Analysis, Vol. 24 of Ecol. Studies (Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1978), from p. 12.
  • F. Briand, unpublished observations
  • K. H. Mann, R. H. Britton, A. Kowalczewski, T. J. Lack, C. P. Mathews and I. McDonald, Productivity and energy flow at all trophic levels in the River Thames, England. In: Productivity Problems of Freshwaters, Z. Kajak and A. Hillbricht-Ilkowska, Eds. (P
  • K. H. Mann, Case history: The River Thames. In: River Ecology and Man (R. T. Oglesby, C. A. Carlson, J. A. McCann, Eds.), Academic Press, New York and London, pp. 215-232 (1972), from p. 224.
  • Link J (2002) Does food web theory work for marine ecosystems? Mar Ecol Prog Ser 230:1–9
  • Opitz S (1996) Trophic interactions in Caribbean coral reefs. ICLARM Tech Rep 43, Manila, Philippines
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Known prey organisms

Porifera (Sponges) preys on:
flagellates
Bacillariophyceae
detritus
plankton
phytoplankton
zooplankton
seston

Based on studies in:
USA: Rhode Island (Coastal)
Barbados (Littoral, Rocky shore)
England, River Thames (River)
USA, Northeastern US contintental shelf (Coastal)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • J. N. Kremer and S. W. Nixon, A Coastal Marine Ecosystem: Simulation and Analysis, Vol. 24 of Ecol. Studies (Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1978), from p. 12.
  • F. Briand, unpublished observations
  • K. H. Mann, R. H. Britton, A. Kowalczewski, T. J. Lack, C. P. Mathews and I. McDonald, Productivity and energy flow at all trophic levels in the River Thames, England. In: Productivity Problems of Freshwaters, Z. Kajak and A. Hillbricht-Ilkowska, Eds. (P
  • K. H. Mann, Case history: The River Thames. In: River Ecology and Man (R. T. Oglesby, C. A. Carlson, J. A. McCann, Eds.), Academic Press, New York and London, pp. 215-232 (1972), from p. 224.
  • Link J (2002) Does food web theory work for marine ecosystems? Mar Ecol Prog Ser 230:1–9
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Evolution and Systematics

Evolution

Discussion of Phylogenetic Relationships

View Porifera Tree

Although the presence of three distinct groups among the extant sponges (classes Hexactinellida, Calcarea, and Demospongiae) is largely unchallenged, the evolutionary relationships among them are controversial. Gray (1867) was first to subdivide all sponges into ‘Porifera Silicea’ and ‘Porifera Calcarea’ based on the chemical composition of sponge spicules (silica vs. calcium carbonate), a view still advocated by some scholars (e.g., Böger 1988). More recently, Reid and Reiswig and Mackie (Reiswig and Mackie 1983) subdivided Porifera into ‘Cellularia’ (Demospongiae plus Calcarea) and ‘Symplasma’ (Hexactinellida), based on the syncytial nature of the choanoderm and pinacoderm in glass sponges (Hexactinellida). Unfortunately, neither chemical composition of spicules nor syncitial nature of glass sponges are likely phylogenetically informative. First, a diverse range of siliceous structures is known in different groups of unicellular eukaryotes, including choanoflagellates, the sister group of animals (Preisig 1994). Second, the syncytial tissue in glass sponges appears to be a derived trait within this group because the development of glass sponges starts with a cellular embryo (Leys, Cheung, and Boury-Esnault 2006).

Similarly, molecular studies have so far been also inconclusive in regard to poriferan relationships, although they suggested two interesting alternatives: 1) the paraphyly of sponges (Cavalier-Smith et al. 1996; Collins 1998; Adams, McInerney, and Kelly 1999; Borchiellini et al. 2001; Rokas, Kruger, Carroll 2005; Peterson et al. 2008) and b) the presence of a distinct fourth class of sponges: Homoscleromorpha (Borchiellini et al. 2004; Nichols 2005; Peterson et al. 2008). However, the latest and the largest molecular phylogenetic study supports the traditional view that sponges are monophyletic (Philippe et al., in print).

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Functional Adaptations

Functional adaptation

Skeleton provides support: sponges
 

The spicular skeleton of sponges provides structural support in the form of dispersed struts.

     
  "In nature, the [dispersal strut] scheme is commoner but still far from widespread--the clearest example, noted in chapter 19, is the spicular skeleton of sponges, in which tiny rigid elements are laced together by collagen (fig 19.7). And there are occasional forays in this direction among sea anemones (coelenterates) and sea cucumbers (echinoderms). It ought to be reemphasized that the arrangement is not intrinsically flawed in some way; the limitation is more likely to lie in problems of compatibility with attachment surfaces for muscles." (Vogel 2003:439)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Steven Vogel. 2003. Comparative Biomechanics: Life's Physical World. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 580 p.
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Functional adaptation

Spicules are rigid structural materials: sponges
 

The spicules of sponges are rigid structural materials due to their mineralized composition.

   
  "There are yet other rigid materials, what Wainwright et al. (1976) refer to as 'stony materials' and Vincent (1990) calls 'biological ceramics.' These are distinguished by being very heavily mineralized, with more mineral (some inorganic salt) than organic matter. Some are tiny, such as the spicules of even very large sponges--made mainly of either calcium carbonate or silica (roughly, glass). Others occur in massive pieces, such as the skeletons of the stony corals and the shells of most mollusks, both made of calcium carbonate with a small amount of organic matter…On the general matter of what occurs where and how it's put together, Brown (1975) remains a useful source." (Vogel 2003:305)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Steven Vogel. 2003. Comparative Biomechanics: Life's Physical World. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 580 p.
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Functional adaptation

Spicules help resist fractures: sponges
 

The spicules of sponges help prevent cracking via their long, thin shape and orientation transverse to load direction.

   
  "That comment about thin elastin fibers brings up still another way not to crack, one implied in the words about thin glass filaments…Use materials that are divided transversely to the direction of the load into thin fibers or filaments or, for bending loads…into layered sheets. Most sponges, for instance, incorporate tiny elongate spicules of calcium salts or glass, which provide stiffness with good material economy and little risk of fracture…For the values of the work of fracture and strain energy storage of the materials available to nature, fibers in the range of 1-10 micrometers in diameter correspond to the critical crack length range and so are especially appropriate." (Vogel 2003:337)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Steven Vogel. 2003. Comparative Biomechanics: Life's Physical World. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 580 p.
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Functional adaptation

Matrix stiffens connective tissue: sponges
 

The connective tissue of sponges is a matrix stiffened by embedded spicules.

     
  "Putting small pieces of brittle material into a pliant matrix gives a composite called a 'filled polymer'--it amounts to a kind of random array of mechanisms. Koehl (1982) looked into the extent to which the connective tissues of animals that had embedded spicules behaved like proper filled polymers--embedded spicules are fairly widespread, not just in sponges, but in some coelenterates, echinoderms, mollusks (the chitons), arthropods (stalked barnacles), and ascidians. She took isolated animal spicules of various kinds and concentrations, embedded them in gelatin (raspberry flavored), and performed various mechanical manipulations on the products. Since the normal function of spicules is to stiffen tissue (although we're still considering relatively unstiff structures), she used that as a criterion of effectiveness. Even a relatively small proportion of spicules dramatically increases stiffness; more spicules or more elongate or irregularly shaped spicules give more stiffness, and small spicules are more effective than are large ones for a given added mass. One factor that matters a lot is the area of contact between spicules and matrix, not unlike other composites. So whether the spicules are in a specific framework or in a random array, roughly the same rules seem to apply." (Vogel 2003:399-400)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Steven Vogel. 2003. Comparative Biomechanics: Life's Physical World. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 580 p.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) Stats
Specimen Records:2711
Specimens with Sequences:1966
Specimens with Barcodes:1631
Species:739
Species With Barcodes:532
Public Records:1526
Public Species:489
Public BINs:351
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Barcode data

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Genomic DNA is available from 1 specimen with morphological vouchers housed at Queensland Museum
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Genomic DNA is available from 5 specimens with morphological vouchers housed at National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research
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Genomic DNA is available from 1 specimen with morphological vouchers housed at Florida Museum of Natural History
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