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New sponges discovered in unexplored deep-sea habitats

A new study led by the University of Balearic Islands and Uppsala University offers significant insights into the biodiversity and distribution of marine sponges, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea, around the Balearic Islands. 

The discovery of new sponge species and new records in previously unexplored habitats, such as underwater caves and mountains, underscores the importance of these ecosystems and the need for their protection.

Limited knowledge of marine sponges

“The sponge fauna of the Western Mediterranean stands as one of the most studied in the world. Yet sampling new habitats and a poorly studied region like the Balearic Islands highlights once again our limited knowledge of this group of animals,” wrote the study authors. 

“This work focused on demosponges of the order Tetractinellida collected in several research surveys (2016–2021) on a variety of ecosystems of the Balearic Islands, including shallow caves, seamounts, and trawl fishing grounds, in a broad depth range (0–725 m). Tetractinellid material from the North Atlantic and more than twenty type specimens were also examined and, for some, re-described in this work.”

Safeguarding marine habitats

The research highlights the ecological significance of the Mallorca channel seamounts and littoral caves, urging for their conservation, particularly advocating for the inclusion of underwater mountains within the Natura 2000 Protected Areas Network

This is a crucial step towards acknowledging and safeguarding the biodiversity and ecological roles of these habitats.

Exploration of new habitats 

Marine sponges play a pivotal role in their ecosystems, filtering large volumes of seawater to feed on bacteria and other microscopic organisms. 

Despite the known diversity of over 9,600 sponge species worldwide, many areas remain unexplored, and the Western Mediterranean’s sponge fauna, one of the most studied, continues to reveal new species upon exploration of new habitats.

These findings, achieved through exhaustive sampling from shallow underwater caves to deep-sea fishing grounds and seamounts up to depths of 1,000 meters, are remarkable. 

Naming the new sponges

Focusing on the tetractinellid sponges, the team discovered eight new species and significantly expanded the known diversity in the Balearic region from 16 to 36 tetractinellid species. 

The naming of new species, such as Stelletta mortarium and Geodia matrix, honors both traditional cultural references and contributions of prominent scientists in the field of sponge research.

Broader implications

This study – published in the journal PeerJ – not only broadens our understanding of marine sponge diversity and distribution but also emphasizes the critical need for marine conservation efforts to protect these complex and valuable ecosystems. 

The research highlights the continuous surprises the ocean holds and the importance of scientific exploration in uncovering the mysteries of the underwater world.

More about marine sponges

Marine sponges, belonging to the phylum Porifera, are simple, multicellular organisms found in marine environments around the world, from shallow coastal waters to the deep sea. 

They are one of the oldest known groups of animals, with a fossil record dating back to approximately 600 million years ago. 

Porous bodies 

Sponges are characterized by their porous bodies and a unique feeding system. Unlike other animals, they do not have nervous, digestive, or circulatory systems.

Instead, they rely on a constant flow of water through their bodies to obtain nutrients and oxygen and to remove waste.

The body of a sponge is full of pores and channels, allowing water to circulate through it. This circulation is driven by specialized cells called choanocytes, which have flagella that beat to draw water in. 

As water passes through the sponge’s body, food particles and oxygen are trapped and absorbed, while waste products are expelled.

Remarkable diversity 

Sponges exhibit a remarkable variety of forms, colors, and sizes. They can be encrusting, forming thin sheets over surfaces, or can be massive, branching, or tube-shaped. 

Their structural framework is supported by a skeleton made of spicules, which are tiny, spike-shaped particles made of silica or calcium carbonate, and/or spongin, a flexible protein fiber.

Ecological role

Sponges play vital roles in their ecosystems. They are key players in nutrient cycling and water filtration, significantly impacting the clarity and quality of marine waters. 

Additionally, sponges provide habitats for a multitude of other marine organisms, contributing to the biodiversity of marine ecosystems.

Medical research 

Furthermore, sponges have become a focus of research due to their production of a wide range of bioactive compounds. 

These compounds have potential applications in medicine, including antibacterial, antiviral, and anticancer properties, leading to increased interest in sponge biology and ecology for biotechnological and pharmaceutical purposes.


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