Mermaid's Glove

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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Haplosclerid sponge (Haliclona angulata)
Courtesy of Bernard Picton, Encyclopedia of Marine Life of Britain and Ireland, CC-BY-NC-SA


About Haplosclerid Sponges (Order Haplosclerida): Use by Humans

Because sponges contain a variety of chemicals that affect living organisms (bioactive compounds), they have become the subject of research to find drugs to treat human diseases. Haplosclerida sponges have been especially fruitful for bioactive compounds. The upwards of 30 compounds called 3-APs found in haplosclerids have properties such as keeping bacteria from growing and stopping cells from dividing. Not only might they be valuable for human medicines, but they also help the sponge stay healthy. A greasy coating of 3-AP compounds on the surface of a haplosclerid sponge is like a repellant for bacteria and other organisms that could contaminate it. The trick for our using these compounds is how to get large enough amounts without hurting wild populations of sponges. Scientists are working to synthesize (make copies of) compounds like the 3-APs rather than take them directly from sponges.

Brittle star on cup sponge (Ircinia campana)
Courtesy of Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip, via CalPhotos, CC-BY-NC-SA


About Sponges (Phylum Porifera): Symbiosis

Sponges host many organisms living on their surface or even inside them. They make great homes because they do not move much, may live a long time (some for hundreds of years), and have hollow bodies with lots of cavities and canals. A single sponge might provide a condominium for organisms as tiny as bacteria and as large as sea stars. The nature of the relationship between the host sponge and its occupants varies. A "parasitic" occupant, such as a mite that lays eggs inside a freshwater sponge, harms the sponge. In many cases, though, a sponge has commensal occupants, who benefit from living there but do not hurt the sponge. The sponge may even have a "mutualistic" relationship, such as with shrimp that keep it clean by living in its canals and eating debris or with bacteria that make toxic chemicals that repel sponge predators. In any case, a sponge is rarely alone.