Wool Sponge

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Klaus Ruetzler, Ph.D.

Dr. Klaus Ruetzler examines sponges maintained in a running-seawater system at the wet lab in Carrie Bow Cay, Belize.

Photo credit: Molly K. Ryan

Dr. Klaus Ruetzler is a research zoologist and curator of sponges in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. His current research focuses on the diversity and ecology of sponges from submarine caves on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef of Belize (Central American Caribbean). He is also working on a book describing 40 years of Smithsonian research on this coral reef ecosystem for which he founded the Smithsonian Carrie Bow Marine Field Station in 1972. He grew up in Austria and first became interested in sponges when he explored submarine caves, using self-made scuba gear, in Croatia, Adriatic Sea, where sponges make up most of the colorful fauna. He turned his early observations into a dissertation and earned a doctorate at the University of Vienna. He was hired by the Smithsonian Institution when a position for a sponge specialist became available.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Dictyoceratid sponge (Dysidea pallescens)
Courtesy of Bernard Picton, Encyclopedia of Marine Life of Britain and Ireland, CC-BY-NC-SA


About Dictyoceratid Sponges (Order Dictyoceratida): Skeleton

Dictyoceratid sponges do not have the usual mineral spicules (rod-like structures that make up many sponge skeletons). Instead they are made entirely of elastic spongin (protein) fibers organized into networks. This makes their bodies tough and flexible. They are easy to squish, but hard to tear. The surface of their body is typically raised up in little cone-shaped points, making it look like they have goosebumps. The bumps are actually projections from the underlying skeletal fibers, and in some species the bumps are expanded into an armor-like covering. Dictyoceratids have the habit of incorporating debris (such as sand grains or spicules shed by other sponges) into their skeletons, making them harder.

Rope sponge in a ball (Aplysina sp.)
Courtesy of NURC/UNCW and NOAA/FGBNMS, public domain

About Sponges (Phylum Porifera): Locomotion

Sponges do not move around much; they are considered to be sessile or fixed in one place. However, research has shown that some sponges can move slowly by shifting their cells in a coordinated fashion. They can reshape themselves to crawl along the seafloor or other surface. They extend parts of their bodies and contract others to achieve locomotion. However, if you attempt to watch a sponge moving, you will likely be disappointed. At best, they move tiny distances, like a couple of millimeters per day. Juvenile sponges are much more mobile. A sponge larva is a little ball of cells with hair-like extensions (cilia or flagella) that allow it to paddle around for a few days until it finds a place to settle down. Once settled, its cells transform to be more appropriate for a sessile organism.