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Water Today Title June 29, 2022

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This story is brought to you in part by Biomass Recycle

Update 2017/5/29
Marine Biology


This story is brought to you in part by Biomass Recycle

By Ronan O'Doherty

A new flesh eating sponge has been identified in the North Atlantic by the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO).

The carnivorous sponge, Cladorhiza kenchingtonae, was collected in 2010 by ROPOS, a Canadian remote operated vehicle that excels at working in remote areas of the deep sea, while on a research trip aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Hudson.

"We don't know of any carnivorous sponges with this sort of body," said Gabrielle Tompkins-MacDonald, a scientist with BIO who specializes in sponges, "most are shaped like shrubs, while this has a unique body with a one metre stem that branches to arms that are reaching out and raking food from the water."

Sponges are all equipped with spicules, which are essentially sponge bones and can be made out of calcium, like our bones, or out of glass (like the often injured shortstop on your local baseball team).

This sponge has five spicule types; some are spiny rods, while others are sharply pointed hooks.

It is these spicules that allow the sponge to be a carnivore.

It's not visible to the naked eye but the whole sponge is covered in hook like spicules that make the surface like Velcro. Zooplankton and small crustaceans that are passing by would get stuck to the surface and then the tissues surrounding the sponges would absorb them into its body.

This makes it very different from most sponges that feed by filtering water through their body.

"It's just one more example that highlights how little we know about the deep sea and the organisms that live there," said Tompkins-MacDonald, "This was the first time visiting that area with a remote operated vehicle and they returned with something that we have never seen before."

It's believed that only a third of all sponge species have been discovered. As it stands, we've identified around 8,500 but more than 25,000 are suspected to exist in the ocean.

"We need to identify unique areas that we should protect," Tompkins-MacDonald said, in reference to Canada's commitment to protect 10% of their coastal waters by 2020," We consider biodiversity when considering which areas to protective areas in the deep sea and each of these unique species in these areas might have a critical role that we don't yet full appreciate."

Scientists are just beginning to look at the functions of sponges in the ocean in as much as how they help with nutrient cycling and how they're able to enhance the diversity of many other types of animals, but so far their understanding is limited to a few key species.

There was a recent exercise organized by the Fisheries Department (DFO) where they highlighted the areas for the whole of Eastern Canada where sponges were most abundant to consider them for possible areas of protection, which is in line with goals set out by the United Nations.

The sponge was named after Dr. Ellen Kenchington, a DFO scientist renowned for her efforts in collecting and describing deep sea diversity that have led to the protection and understanding of ocean habitats.

"It is really amazing to work on such a strange creature that's from the unexplored deep ocean, so we wanted to give it a name with meaning that was connected to the value in the deep sea," said Tompkins-MacDonald, "We felt that naming the new species after Dr. Kenchington is just a small way to acknowledge her many contributions to ocean science."

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