Row Pore Rope 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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Verongid sponge (Hexadella racovitzai)
Courtesy of Bernard Picton, Encyclopedia of Marine Life of Britain and Ireland, CC-BY-NC-SA


About Verongiid Sponges (Order Verongida): Use by Humans

Many sponges make chemicals that are useful pharmaceutically for humans, such as anti-cancer or anti-bacterial. Verongiid sponges make a unique set of chemicals that are small, bromine-containing molecules. These molecules are natural antibacterials, defending the sponge by repelling bacteria and other tiny organisms. Humans are continually looking for compounds to achieve this antifouling. Think about how we use antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, food preservatives to keep food from rotting, and metal-based paints designed to keep wood from decaying. Chemicals extracted from verongiid sponges, or copied in the laboratory, might serve these functions. The challenge is to make use of these remarkable, natural chemicals while conserving populations of sponges.

Red boring sponge (Cliona celata)
Courtesy of Bernard Picton, Encyclopedia of Marine Life of Britain and Ireland, CC-BY-NC-SA


About Sponges (Phylum Porifera): Feeding

With the exception of one group of carnivorous sponges, all sponges are filter-feeders. The design of their bodies is mostly about filtering food, and does not include a mouth or stomach. A sponge body is basically a tube or sack with lots of small pores (ostia) for water to come in and other, larger pores (oscula) for water to get out. What happens in between varies. In the simplest sponge bodies, the water enters the ostia pores and then dumps into a large, central area called the atrium. The most complex sponge bodies have a whole system of canals leading to smaller chambers where water gets filtered. In any case, the filtering is done by little hair-like flagella that trap bacteria and tiny ocean organisms (plankton) before the water gets expelled from the sponge. Sponge wastewater may be flushed out forcefully enough to travel 10 feet.