January 29, 2013
For most, seeing something that no one’s ever seen before would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not so for Lonny Lundsten, a research technician at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).
This fall, Lundsten was part of a research team that described and announced a brand new species of sponge. Christened Chondrocladia lyra (photo credit 2012 MBARI), this ghostly animal is bright white, lives 11,550 feet beneath the waves and (drumroll please) captures its own prey.
When most people think of sponges, they think of the soft, yellow, squishy items that accompany bathtime. These sponges, like their natural counterparts, appear more plant pant-like than animal-like. It’s hard to believe that some species are able predators, but Lundsten says C. lyra is just that.
“Most sponges have to filter particles out of the water column, but that’s energetically expensive,” he explains. “Carnivorous sponges are found in food-poor environments, and this adaptation allows them not to waste so much energy. They’re waiting for prey to bump into them instead of constantly creating an energy-inefficient current.”
Basically, C. lyra roots into the seafloor with finger-like projections called rhizoids. The rest of the sponge is composed of two to six harp-like structures called vanes. Each vane consists of one horizontal arm supporting several long, thin, vertical branches. Instead of pumping tons of water to get a few tiny food particles, C. lyra lies in wait for a large, energy-rich prey item, like a tiny crustacean. Once encountered, C. lyra snags its prey on the sharp barbs that cover its branches, engulfs it and slowly digests it.
As it turns out, it takes a long time to identify and describe new species. According to Lundsten, the first C. lyra was sighted in 2000. Since then, two samples were collected, and underwater cameras captured footage of ten more. Lundsten and other researchers subsequently evaluated the sponge’s physiology and behavior to determine that it really was a new species.
It’s likely that Lundsten will get to participate in the discovery of more novel organisms. His job involves sifting through all the video data captured by MBARI’s ROVs—or remotely operated vehicles—which often descend into the deep ocean on various research missions. While the ROVs collect samples, Lundsten and his colleagues keep their eyes peeled for undiscovered ocean-dwelling critters.
“We’re sort of experts in the fauna where MBARI does surveys,” says Lundsten. “We’re the frontline for observing and identifying new organisms.”
It’s safe to say that Lundsten is looking forward to the next discovery. “Any time you see something nobody’s ever seen before, that’s really exciting,” he says. “It’s true exploration.”