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Scientists discover extraordinary new carnivorous sponge

Thondrocladia lampadiglobus, the ping pong tree sponge. Another of the carnivorous sponges in the family Cladorhizidae. Photo: © MBARI 2002en thousand feet below the ocean's surface, the seafloor is a dark, desolate, and dangerous place where even the most benign-looking creatures can be deadly predators. Recently, a team of scientists discovered an unlikely new carnivorous species— the harp sponge (Chondrocladia lyra).

C. lyra is called the harp sponge because its basic structure, called a vane, is shaped like a harp or lyre. each vane consists of a horizontal branch supporting several parallel, vertical branches. But don't let the harp sponge's whimsical appearance and innocent sounding name fool you, it's actually a deep-sea predator.

Clinging with root-like "rhizoids" to the soft, muddy sediment, the harp sponge captures tiny animals that are swept into its branches by deep-sea currents. typically, sponges feed by straining bacteria and bits of organic material from the seawater they filter through their bodies. However, carnivorous harp sponges snare their prey—tiny crustaceans—with barbed hooks that cover the sponge's branching limbs. once the harp sponge has its prey in its clutches, it envelops the animal in a thin membrane, and then slowly begins to digest it.

It has been less than twenty years since scientists first discovered that sponges could be carnivores. since then, marine biologists have discovered dozens of new carnivorous species. In fact, all the members of the harp sponge's family Cladorhizidae including the ping pong tree sponge—are carnivores.

The deep seafloor can be a very inhospitable place. It is cold, dark, and resources are often scarce. the harp sponge is an extraordinary example of the kind of adaptations that animals must make in order to survive in such a hostile environment.

Image Credit: Chondrocladia lampadiglobus, the ping pong tree sponge. Another of the carnivorous sponges in the family Cladorhizidae. Photo: © MBARI 2002

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