07 Oct 2013:
Nutrient Recycling by Sponges
Is Vital in Sustaining Reefs, Study Says
Sponges are the unsung heroes of coral reefs, helping the vibrant ecosystems thrive in the marine equivalent of a desert, a Dutch team working in the Caribbean has found
. Scientists had long questioned how reefs, some of the most productive communities on earth, were able to survive in low-nutrient tropical seas. Bacteria help recycle some nutrients, but the so-called "microbial loop" can't account for the high rates of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous recycling needed to maintain a coral reef, researchers say. Sponges fill that void by drawing in plankton and organic matter expelled by the corals and shedding cells that other reef organisms ingest as food, the researchers report in Science
. The "sponge loop," as the Dutch team calls the process, recycles 10 times more organic material than bacteria do and produces as many nutrients as all other primary producers in a coral reef combined, they say. The researchers measured nutrient cycling rates at reefs off the coast of the island of Curacao, where they found that organic matter sucked in by sponges reached snails, fish, and other reef organisms within two days. One sponge species in particular, Halisarca caerulea
, absorbs up to two-thirds of its weight in carbon daily, but barely grows in size because it sheds so many of its cells to the seafloor for other organisms to ingest.
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
Yale Environment 360
articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia
, the online educational network. Visit the site.
Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
A three-part series Tainted Harvest
looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup. Read the series.
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile
The Warriors of Qiugang
, a Yale Environment 360
video, chronicles a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant. It was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Watch the video.
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland
. © Google & TerraMetrics.
, winner of the Yale Environment 360 Video Contest, documents the work of African researchers monitoring wildlife in Uganda's remote Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Watch the video.