SERIES: Invertebrate of the Week

Invertebrate of the Week #11 – Venus’ Flower Basket (Euplectella aspergillum)

A golden crab and Venus flower basket glass sponges, Euplectella aspergillum
A golden crab (Chaceon fenneri) investigates a spectacular group of Venus flower basket glass sponges (Euplectella aspergillum).
Image by NOAA

Up to this point, arthropods have dominated the Invertebrate of the Week series so I am going to give them a rest and head over to a different invertebrate lineage: the sponges (phylum Porifera).

Sponges hail from a very, very old evolutionary line and this week’s invertebrate comes from the oldest of the old: Hexactinellida. According to the Natural History Museum in London, this group of sponges represents the oldest multicellular organisms in the fossil record and they enjoyed “their maximum diversity during the Cretaceous (99.6 – 65.5 million years ago) when these sponges formed the vast reefs of the Tethys Sea.

Known as glass sponges, they are exclusively marine and enjoy a worldwide distribution at depths between 10 and 6000 meters. They are most commonly encountered in cold waters (2-11o C) on deep-sea (>200 meters) substrates where they survive by filter feeding.

Hexactinellida get their name from their association with ‘glass’ in the form of silica. Their skeletons are composed of 6-pointed silica spicules aggregated in a rigid mesh. As described by researcher Martin Dohrmann, these spicules “…have a triaxonic and cubic symmetry, (i.e. they are composed of three axes that are arranged at right angles to each other.) The basic spicule form is the hexactin, which has all six rays (two per axis) fully developed – hence the taxonomic name, Hexactinellida.” The strength imparted by this design is one of the reasons behind how these sponges are able to survive at crushing depths.

While the skeletal structure of these sponges is clearly defined, the surrounding adult soft tissues are syncytial – their cells are fused. This means that a single cell contains many nuclei but few (if any) internal borders. Such intimate connectivity among cells has its advantages. It has been demonstrated that sponges use syncytial tissues to propagate electrical impulses much like a nervous system.

For this week’s post, I am focusing on a particularly conspicuous representative of the Hexactinellida lineage called Euplectella aspergillum. Colloquially dubbed ‘Venus’ Flower Basket’, this sponge can be found in the western Pacific Ocean near the Philippine Islands. It inhabits depths between 100 and 1000 meters with a preference for deepwater rocky substrates >500 meters down.

It is radially symmetric and exhibits a beautiful mesh-like ‘vase’ morphology that typically reaches a height between 10 – 30cm.

Detail of Euplectella aspergillum glass sponge
Detail of Euplectella aspergillum
Image by Grover Schrayer
Photograph of Euplectella aspergillum specimen
Photograph of Euplectella aspergillum specimen
Image by Swee-Cheng
Close-up of the spicule structure of a Euplectella aspergillum
Close-up of the spicule structure of a Euplectella aspergillum
Image by Ryan Moody
A single Euplectella aspergillum on a rocky substrate
A single Euplectella aspergillum on a rocky substrate.
Image by NOAA

The interior (spongocoel) of this remarkable sponge sometimes plays host to abyssal shrimp. The shrimp enter the cavity as larvae and eventually grow too large to exit.

Occasionally, a male and female shrimp will mature and become trapped within the same spongocoel and anecdotal reports suggest that sponge specimens collected with such shrimp pairings have traditionally been presented as wedding gifts in Japan to symbolize the vow of “til death do us part.”

Euplectella glass sponge with shrimp symbionts inside
A still frame from video captured by NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer showing living Euplectella with shrimp symbionts inside. The video was recorded during the “2017 American Samoa Expedition: Suesuega o le Moana o Amerika Samoa”
View of shrimp in a glass sponge captured by the ROV Hercules in 2019. The video continues to show other invertebrates encountered during the dive.

References and Further Reading

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