Sponges: the unsung heroes of the reef
Just beneath the surface of the turquoise blue waters of Bocas del toro we can observe a variety of strikingly beautiful and biodiverse ecosystems. When snorkeling or diving among the reefs, seagrass meadows and mangroves, it’s hard to miss some of the most colorful and important inhabitants – sea sponges. These ancient and incredibly diverse animals come in a mesmerizing array of shapes, sizes and colors and play critical ecological roles that support the health of coral reefs.
These “sessile”, or stationary, organisms are actually animals that have been around for at least 600 million years! They are found across the world and at all different depths in both marine and freshwater ecosystems. In the Caribbean alone there are over 640 described species, and an estimated 120 of them are found on our local reefs. Sea sponges provide habitat and food for a myriad of marine creatures, from microscopic organisms to shrimps, fish, and even sea turtles. They range from small encrusting sponges that form colorful patches on rocky surfaces to massive barrel sponges that tower over the ocean floor like living sculptures.
Filters of the Reef
Sea sponges play a vital role in maintaining the health of marine environments. As highly effective filter feeders, they are constantly pumping water through their porous bodies, efficiently sieving out bacteria, nutrients and small particles. Large barrel sponges can filter thousands of gallons of water in a single day! In doing so, sponges purify seawater and recycle nutrients, significantly contributing to local biodiversity and overall coral health.
Sponges are key to preserving the intricate balance of our coral reef ecosystems. Around the world, widespread changes in sponge communities are being observed, underscoring the urgency of conservation efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change, pollution, and other threats on these vital marine organisms.
An Invitation to Explore
From shallow tropical reefs to the depths of the ocean, sea sponges offer a window into the complexity and beauty of marine life. Their resilience, diversity, and ecological significance highlight the need for us to appreciate and protect these underwater marvels.
If you want to learn more about sponge biology, ecology and get involved in monitoring efforts, check out our options for diving and our citizen science sponge conservation program!
Diaz, M. 2005. Common Sponges from Shallow Marine Habitats from Bocas del Toro Region, Panama. Caribbean Journal of Science 41(3):465-475