Azure Vase 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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Barrel sponge (Xestospongia muta)
Courtesy of Twilight Zone Expedition Team 2007, NOAA-Ocean Explorer, BY-SA

About Haplosclerid Sponges (Order Haplosclerida): Habitat

Haplosclerids are distributed worldwide, even in freshwater. They stand out as sponges that can tolerate an unstable home environment. You find them in places like estuaries that suffer regular changes in salinity and water levels, tropical marshes that dry up in summer, and high elevation lakes that freeze in winter. How can a sponge survive these fluctuating environments Haploscerids usually alternate between sexual and asexual reproduction, and can go asexual when conditions are bad. They produce buds made of cells and a food supply called gemmules, which are little miracle packets that can survive freezing and drying. If it gets too dry, gemmules go into a torpid state called estivation and, if it gets too cold, they hibernate. The adult sponge may die, but leave behind a bunch of gemmules that can wait and begin to grow again when conditions improve.

Close-up of sponge skeleton (Callyspongia roosevelti)
Courtesy of Rob van Soest, World Register of Marine Species, CC-BY-NC-SA

About Sponges (Phylum Porifera): Skeleton

Sponges have an internal skeleton, but it is not made of bone like ours. Their skeletons are made of stiff, mineral rods called spicules, or a matrix of strong but flexible protein called spongin, or both. Spicules may be loosely scattered in the body tissue of a sponge, gathered into little bundles, or arranged in symmetrical patterns to form a structured skeleton. You can judge a sponge by its spicules. They come in many shapes, from as simple as toothpick-straight to complex, branching stars. The end of each spicule is specialized too; it may be pointed, flat, shovel-like, or even look like a mushroom cap. By using microscopes to look at spicules (which are tiny), scientists are often able to identify the type of sponge they came from. Given that the spicules are often all that remain of a dead sponge, this is quite handy.