Four new species of killer sponges, related to the non-synthetic sponges that might be in your kitchen or bathroom now, have just been discovered living deep in the Pacific Ocean, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).
The sponges look more like ghostly plants than the blobby natural sponge you might use to do your dishes or in the bath. They consist of twig-like structures covered with microscopic hairs. The hairs, in turn, are packed with microscopic hooks that the hungry, flesh-eating sponges use to trap prey.
Here's a close-up view of Asbestopluma monticola.
MBARI marine biologist Lonny Lundsten and his team collected a few samples while exploring the deep sea floor from the Pacific Northwest to Baja California. After bringing them back to the lab, the researchers noticed many crustacean prey stuck within the sponges in various states of decomposition.
The new sponges included:
Asbestopluma monticola- Monticolameans means "mountain-dweller" in Latin. This sponge was found atop the Davidson Seamount, which is an extinct underwater volcano.
Asbestopluma rickettsi- This spiny sponge was named after marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who was immortalized in John Steinbeck's book, "Cannery Row."
Cladorhiza caillieti- The sponge was found hanging out on recent lava flows along the Juan de Fuca Ridge, a volcanic ridge offshore of Vancouver Island.
Cladorhiza evae- It was discovered far to the south, in a newly discovered hydrothermal vent field on the Alarcon Rise, off the tip of Baja California.
Here, a large group of Asbestopluma monticola sponges are visible growing on top of a dead sponge at Davidson Seamount, offshore of the Central California coast.
Most sponges, even ones that might be in your home, are generally filter feeders that live off of bacteria and single-celled organisms sieved from the surrounding water. Lundsten explained that they contain specialized cells called choancytes, whose whip-like tails move continuously to create a flow of water that brings food to the sponge. Most carnivorous sponges, though, have no choancytes.
As he said, "To keep beating the whip-like tails of the choancytes takes a lot of energy. And food is hard to come by in the deep sea. So these sponges trap larger, more nutrient-dense organisms, like crustaceans, using beautiful and intricate microscopic hooks."
Here, a group of Asbestopluma monticola sponges grows on an ancient lava flow at Davidson Seamount, offshore of the Central California coast.
The deep sea can be inhospitable. Old lava flows, for example, aren't exactly stable surfaces. Hydrothermal vents, where C. evae was located, can be incredibly hot.
A group of Cladorhiza evae sponges are shown growing near a hydrothermal chimney along the Alarcon Rise, off the tip of Baja Calif.
Lundsten and his team hope to see the sponges hunt and eat their prey from start to finish, to better understand how that all works. It sounds like an undersea plot out of "Little Shop of Horrors!" These four new sponges could have a lot of ravenous relatives too.
The manipulator arm on MBARI's remotely operated vehicle Doc Ricketts is seen here collecting a Cladorhiza caillieti sponge growing on a piece of carbonate crust on the seafloor off the coast of Southern California.