Category Archives: sponges

Friday Fellow: Venus’ Flower Basket

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Sponges are the weirdest of all animals but also some of the most beautiful. One species of special beauty that is considerably popular is Euplectella aspergillum, popularly known as the Venus’ flower basket.

Venus’ flower basket in the Pacific Ocean.

Growing on the Ocean floor of tropical waters, the Venus’ flower basket is common around the Philippines and this may be the only place where it occurs. Other similar species are found in nearby areas such as Japan, Indonesia and Australia and are often mistaken for the Venus’ flower basket. There are, indeed, populations of this species identified in Australia and Indonesia, among other areas near the Philippines, but are considered subspecies due to subtle morphological differences and may in fact be complete separate species.

The Venus’ flower basket is a medium-sized sponge, measuring up to 1.3 m in height, althout most specimens measure between 10 and 30 cm. The body is white and has several large pores that make it look like an elongate basket, hence the common name. The osculum, the large opening at the top, is covered by a mesh of fibers that makes its interior inaccessible to large organisms.

Skeleton of the Venus’ flower basket. Credits to the Auckland Museum.*

Recently, the Venus’ flower basket has called the attention of scientists because of the structural complexity of its skeleton, which is composed of silica (i.e., glass). Studies have shown that the anchor spicules, i.e., those that attach the sponge to the substrate, are similar to man-mane optical fibers regarding optical properties but are better regarding fracture resistance. Understanding the detailed pathway used by the sponge to build these spicules could lead to the development of easier ways to build optical fibers and even increase their quality.

– – –

Like us on Facebook!

Follow us on Twitter!

– – –


Monn MA, Weaver JC, Zhang T, Aizenberg J, Kesari H (2015) New functional insights into the internal architecture of the laminated anchor spicules of Euplectella aspergillum. PNAS 1112(16): 4976-498. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1415502112

Shimizu K, Amano T, Bari MR, Weaver JC, Arima J, Mori N (2015) Glassin, a histidine-rich protein from the siliceous skeletal system of the marine sponge Euplectella, directs silica polycondensation. PNAS 112(37): 11449-11454. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1506968112

Tabachnick KR, Janussen D, Menschenina LL (2008) New Australian Hexactinellida (Porifera) with a revision of Euplectella aspergillum. Zootaxa 1866: 7–68.

Weaver JC, Aizenberg J, Fantner GE, Kisailus D, Woesz A, Allen P, Fields K, Porter MJ, Zok FW, Hansma PK, Fratzl P, Morse DE (2007) Hierarchical assembly of the siliceous skeletal lattice of the hexactinellid sponge Euplectella aspergillum. Journal of Structural Biology 158: 93–106. doi: 10.1016/j.jsb.2006.10.027

– – –

*Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Leave a comment

Filed under Friday Fellow, sponges

Friday Fellow: Common Latticed Sponge

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Let’s go back to the sea and to our distant animal relatives, the sponges. Today I’m bringing a calcareous sponge with a nice appearance, Clathrina clathrus, who I decided to call “the common latticed sponge”.

Found in the Mediterranean Sea and the European coast of the Atlantic Ocean, the common latticed sponge has a yellow color and about 10 cm in diameter. It is formed by a tangle of tubes that somewhat resemble a twisted lattice or something like that.


A specimen of Clathrina clathrus with its latticed appearance. Photo by Wikimedia user Esculapio.*

The shape and size of the specimens is quite variable, changing in a matter of hours by expansion, contraction and folding of structures and cells. In the same way, specimens often fragment into smaller ones or merge into larger ones, so that individuality is a dynamic process.

Recently, the common latticed sponge has revealed to contain some compounds, known as clathridimines, that show antimicrobial activities against Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, as well as against the yeast Candida albicans. These compounds may be produced by the diverse community of bacteria that live in close association with this sponge, a community that is yet very little known.

– – –

Like us on Facebook!

– – –


Gaino, E.; Pansini, M.; Pronzato, R.; Cicogna, F. (1991) Morphological and structural variations in Clathrina clathrus (Porifera, Calcispongiae). In.: Reitner, J.; Keupp, H. (Eds.) Fossil and Recent Sponges. Springer-Verlag, Berlin. pp. 360-371.

Quévrain, E.; Roué, M.; Domart-Coulon, I.; Bourguet-Kondracki, M.-L. (2014) Assessing the potential bacterial origin of the chemical diversity in calcareous sponges. Journal of Marine Science and Technology 22(1): 36-49.

Roué, M.; Domart-Coulon, I.; Ereskovsky, A.; Djediat, C.; Perez, T.; Bourguet-Kondracki, M.-L. (2010) Cellular localization of clathridimine, an antimicrobial 2-aminoimidazole alkaloid produced by the Mediterranean calcerous sponge Clathrina clathrusThe Journal of Natural Products 73(7): 1277–1282.

– – –

*Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Leave a comment

Filed under Friday Fellow, sponges

Who came first? The comb or the sponge?

by Piter Kehoma Boll

The endless question is here again, but this time it appears to be settled. What animal group is the earliest of all? Who came first?

It is clear that there are five animal lineages that are usually regarded as monophyletic: sponges, placozoans, comb jellies, cnidarians and bilaterians. Let’s take a brief look at each of them:

Sponges (phylum Porifera) are always sessile, i.e., they do not move and are fixed to the substrate. They have a very simple anatomical structure. Their body is consisted of a kind of tube, having a large internal cavity and two layers of cells, an outer one and an inner one around the cavity. There are several small openings connecting the cavity to the outside, called pores, and one or more large cavities, called oscula (singular: osculum). Between the two cell layers there is a jelly-like mesohyl containing unspecialized cells, as well as the skeleton structures, including fibers of spongine and spicules of calcium carbonate or silica. Some species also secrete an outer calcium carbonate skeleton over which the organic part grows. Sponges lack muscles, nervous system, excretory system or any other kind of system. They simply live by beating the flagella of the choanocytes (the cells of the inner layer), creating a water flow entering through the pores and exiting through the osculum. The choanocytes capture organic particles in the water and ingest them by phagocytosis. All sponge cells can change from one type to another and migrate from one layer to another, so there are no true tissues.


Body structures found in sponges. Picture by Philip Chalmers.*

Placozoans (phylum Placozoa) are even simpler than sponges, but they actually have true tissues. They are flat amoeboid organisms with two layers of epithelium, one dorsal and one ventral, and a thin layer of stellate cells. The ventral cell layer is slightly concave and appears to be homologous to the endoderm (the “gut” layer) of other animals, while the upper layer is homologous to the ectoderm (the “skin” layer).


Trichoplax adhaerens, the only species currently in the phylum Placozoa. Photo by Bernd Schierwater.**

Comb jellies (phylum Ctenophora) resemble jellyfishes, but a closer look reveals many differences. Externally they have an epidermis composed by two layers, an outer one that contains sensory cells, mucus-secreting cells and some specialized cells, like colloblasts that help capturing prey and cells containing multiple cilia used in locomotion, and an inner layer with a nerve net and muscle-like cells. They have a true mouth that leads to a pharynx and a stomach. From the stomach, a system os channels distribute the nutrients along the body. Opposite to the mouth there is a small anal pore that may excrete small unwanted particles, although most of the rejected material is expelled through the mouth. There is a layer of jelly-like material (mesoglea) between the gut and the epidermis.


The comb jelly Bathocyroe fosteri.

Cnidarians (phylum Cnidaria) have a structure similar to comb jellies, but not as complex. They also have an outer epidermis, but this is composed by a single layer of cells, and a sac-like gut surrounded by epthelial cells (gastrodermis), as well as a mesoglea between the two. Around the mouth there is one or two sets of tentacles. The most distinguishing feature of cnidarians is the presence of harpoon-like nettle cells, the cnidocytes, which are used as a defense mechanism and to help subdue prey.


Body structure of a cnidarian (jellyfish). Picture by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal.

Bilaterians (clade Bilateria) includes all other animals. They are far more complex and are characterized by a bilateral body, cephalization (they have heads) and three main cell layers, the ectoderm, which originates the epidermis and the nervous system, the mesoderm, which give rise to muscles and blood cells, and the endoderm, which develops into the digestive and endocrine systems.


Basic bilaterian structure.

Traditionally, sponges were always seen as the most primitive animals due to their lack of true tissues, muscular cells, nervous cells and all that stuff. However, some recent molecular studies have put the comb jellies as the most primitive animals. This was highly unexpected, as comb jellies are far more complex than sponges and placozoans, which would suggest that muscles and a nervous system evolved twice in the animal kingdom, or that sponges are some weird simplification of a more complex ancestor, which would be very hard to explain. The nervous system of comb jellies is indeed quite unusual, but not so much that it needs an independent origin.

However, now things appear to be settled. A study published this month on Current Biology by Simion et al. reconstructed a phylogenetic tree using 1719 genes of 97 animal species, and applying new and more congruent methods. With this more refined dataset, they recovered the classical reconstruction that puts sponges at the base of the animal tree, a more plausible scenario after all.

But why other studies have found comb jellies as the most basal group? Well, it seeems that comb jellies have unusually high substitution rates, meaning that their genes evolve faster. This leads to a problem called “long branch attraction” in phylogenetic reconstructions. As DNA has only four different nucleobases, namely adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine, each one can only mutate into one of the other three. When mutations occur very often, they may go back to what they were in long lost ancestor, leading to misinterpretations in the evolutionary relationships. That seems to be what happens with comb jellies.

So, it seems that after all the sponge indeed came first.

– – –

References and further reading:

Borowiec ML, Lee EK, Chiu JC, & Plachetzki DC 2015. Extracting phylogenetic signal and accounting for bias in whole-genome data sets supports the Ctenophora as sister to remaining Metazoa. BMC Genomics 16: 987. DOI: 10.1186/s12864-015-2146-4

Littlewood DTJ 2017. Animal Evolution: Last Word on Sponges-First? Current Biology 27: R259–R261. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.042

Simion P, Philippe H, Baurain D, Jager M, Richter DJ, Di Franco A, Roure B, Satoh N, Quéinnec É, Ereskovsky A, Lapébie P, Corre E, Delsuc F, King N, Wörheide G, & Manuel M 2017. A Large and Consistent Phylogenomic Dataset Supports Sponges as the Sister Group to All Other Animals. Current Biology 27: 958–967. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.031

Wallberg A, Thollesson M, Farris JS, & Jondelius U 2004. The phylogenetic position of the comb jellies (Ctenophora) and the importance of taxonomic sampling. Cladistics 20: 558–578. DOI: 10.1111/j.1096-0031.2004.00041.x
– – –
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
** Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Leave a comment

Filed under cnidarians, Evolution, sponges, Zoology

Friday Fellow: Branching Vase Sponge

by Piter Kehoma Boll

A fascinating group of animals that has not yet joined the Friday Fellows are the sponges. Different from all other animals, sponges have a unique body structure that behaves more like a plant or fungus. They grow in irregular or radial ways and are usually branched. More than that, they have thousands of small mouths along their bodies, called pores, that suck water from the environment in order to filter food from it.

But let’s talk about our species. Living in the Caribbean Sea, its name is Callyspongia vaginalis, commonly known as branching vase sponge. Its usual shape is that of a tube or set of tubes, sometimes branched, that may reach several centimeters in length and usually abour 3 cm in diameter. The color may vary from pink or lavender to duller colors, such as brown or gray.


A lavender pipe of Callyspongia vaginalis. Photo by Mark Rosenstein*.

As most sponges, the branching vase sponge feeds on small particles and microorganisms that it filters from water. As the concentration of particles in the water increases with depth, organisms growing deeper usually grow faster due to the higher food availability.

The main predators of the branching vase sponge are fishes. They actually act more like herbivores eating plants, as they don’t eat the whole sponge and usually do not kill it, but bite its surface, taking off pieces.


A large and branched individual of the branching vase sponge. Photo by Paul Asman and Jil Lenoble.**

Bristlestars, especially of the genus Ophiothrix, such as Ophiothrix lineata, are frequently found living inside the main cavity of the sponge. There, these animals find shelter from predators and, at night, when the environment is safer, they extend their arms outside and clean the sponge from large organic particles, feeding on them. It’s a mutually benefitial association.

– – –


EOL – Encyclopedia of Life. Callyspongia vaginalis. Available at <;. Access on January 12, 2017.

Hendler, G. (1984). The Association of Ophiothrix lineata and Callyspongia vaginalis: A Brittlestar-Sponge Cleaning Symbiosis? Marine Ecology, 5 (1), 9-27 DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0485.1984.tb00304.x

Hoppe, W. (1988). Growth, regeneration and predation in three species of large coral reef sponges Marine Ecology Progress Series, 50, 117-125 DOI: 10.3354/meps050117

– – –

*Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

**Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Leave a comment

Filed under Friday Fellow, sponges