Can spicules be used to reconstruct ancient sponge communities?

Anyone that has played with coral reef sand has felt the sharp needles of sponge spicules  in their hands. Spicules are made by sponges (and other animals too, like some ascidians) and are like glass. In fact they are glass, being made of pure silica, and they are used by sponges as defense from chomping fish or to help keep the sponge rigid. They come in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes, and the sands of coral reefs can be filled with billions of spicules.

Sponges are very important for reefs. They filter huge quantities of water keeping things clear and clean, provide important homes for loads of other animals, and they protect reefs from erosion by binding the reef together. But, as with most of life in the Caribbean, sponge communities have started to deteriorate. Since the 1980’s they have become less abundant and less diverse. Without sponges reefs may just wash away.

We wish to explore the historical changes in Caribbean reef sponge communities. When did sponges decline and why? The coring project of the TMHE will be exploring sponge spicules through the last few thousand years in several Caribbean reefs (see here). However, spicules are strange beasts. Some sponges produce millions of spicules, others hardly any or none at all. Spicule shape is highly variable (see image) but is not tightly phylogenetically constrained. That means that some spicule types occur in unrelated groups. What’s more, some sponges have more than one type of spicule, sometimes three or four.

This all makes it extremely difficult to reconstruct the sponge community from a bunch of spicules. In this paper student Magdalena Lukowiak at the Polish Academy of Sciences who had held a short term fellowship at STRI explores the taphonomy of sponge spicules on a Caribbean reef in Bocas del Toro. The relationships between sponge community and spicules found on the sea floor explored in this paper will help us to resolve changes in sponge communities through our cores.

Download the paper by clicking on the image