Scientists identify new species of sea sponge off coast of British Columbia

Newly discovered and abundant sea sponge may have significant influence on reef ecosystems, say marine biologists.


A newly discovered species of sea sponge, Desmacella hyalina, is abundant in the glass sponge reefs off the coast of British Columbia and may play a major role in reef ecosystems in the area, according to U of A marine biologists. (Photo: Sally Leys)

A University of Alberta research team discovered a new sea sponge off the coast of British Columbia that could play a major role in the overall health of delicate reef ecosystems in the area.

The new species-called Desmacella hyalina-was discovered using an underwater robot that travelled along the ocean floor, surveying reefs and collecting samples. The scientists say the sea sponge is abundant, making up nearly 20 per cent of the live sponges in reefs in the region.

"Our findings show Desmacella comprise a surprisingly large amount of live sponge cover in the reefs and can have potential major influence on reef function, recruitment and overall ecosystem health," said Lauren Law, who conducted the research as part of her graduate studies with U of A marine biologist Sally Leys.

"While we have discovered a new species, we have yet to determine its relationship with glass sponges in the area."

Reefs made of glass sea sponges cover hundreds of kilometres of the ocean floor off the B.C. coast. The sponges form multi-storied habitats with their skeletons stacked on top of one another to create intricate reefs that are home to marine life including halibut, rockfish and shrimp.

In February 2017, Fisheries and Oceans Canada designated the region-including the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound-a marine protected area to preserve the delicate reefs.

"One of the most important reasons for studying the diversity of sea sponges in our oceans is for conservation management," explained Law, who is now a biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Region.

"Many studies in the protected area have focused on describing the crustaceans and fish living in the reefs, but non-reef-forming sponges remain overlooked."

The researchers say further investigation is required to better understand the role of Desmacella in the ecosystem, as well as a more in-depth ecological assessment of glass sponge habitat focused on surveying non-reef-forming sponges.

"Properly knowing the components of an environment and the linkages between them-here this new species Desmacella hyalina and the reef sponges it lives on-is a major step forward in understanding the ecosystem services and function of the sponge reefs," added Leys.

"This is the information we need for concrete management strategies."

This research was supported by the Canadian Healthy Oceans Network and its partners: Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Northern Institute for Research in Environment and Occupational Health and Safety.

The study, "Description and Distribution of Desmacella hyalina sp. nov. (Porifera, Desmacellidae), a New Cryptic Demosponge in Glass Sponge Reefs From the Western Coast of Canada," was published in Marine Biodiversity.

-with files from Sean Townsend