The world's warming oceans and the ongoing acidification of seawater are having a serious effect on B.C.'s rare glass sponges and their associated reefs, according to a study conducted by UBC researchers.
The sponge reefs—constructed by living glass sponges growing on the skeletons of previous generations—can grow to the height of a six-storey building and were thought to have become extinct worldwide about 40 million years ago, until the discovery of massive reefs 200 metres deep in Hecate Strait in northern B.C. in 1987 (although they had been observed as unexplained "mounds" on the floors of Queen Charlotte Sound and Hecate Strait during sonar surveys a few years previous).
At the time, the reefs were described by astonished scientists as "living dinosaurs". German paleontologist Manfred Krautter was quoted as saying their discovery in B.C. waters "electrified" him and was "like discovering a herd of dinosaurs on land", and the prehistoric constructs are often referred to as "Jurassic Park submerged".
Subsequent dives by scientists in submersibles determined that they were up to 6,000 years old and covered a surface area of up to 700 square kilometres. It is theorized that the sponges, which are living marine animals, started building reefs there after B.C.'s most recent glaciation period scraped the ocean bottom clean more than 9,000 years ago.
Since the first discoveries, another 19 glass-sponge reefs have been found in the Strait of Georgia, which is part of what is often called the Salish Sea. An American geologist found other, specialized, reefs off the coast of Washington state in 2007.
The sponges use dissolved silica—glass, essentially—to build skeletons constructed of needlelike so-called spicules. Although glass sponges are common around the world, only in very rare cases do they form reefs, building new structures on top of the skeletons of dead sponges. The relatively accessible reefs found in Howe Sound are unique in the world for their shallow depth of less than 40 metres.
The UBC paper—published on May 18 in Scientific Reports, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal—detailed the results of an experiment initiated by Angela Stevenson, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC's zoology department who is the study's lead researcher. Stevenson was aided by scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, Vancouver's Ocean Wise Research Institute, and UBC's department of botany.
Stevenson brought some examples of Aphrocallistes vastus—called the cloud sponge and one of three species of reef-building glass sponges found in B.C. waters—from Howe Sound to a UBC lab. Water temperature and acidity were then manipulated for a four-month study, resulting in the first successful long-term lab experiment involving living glass sponges.
"“Their sheer size and tremendous filtration capacity put them at the heart of a lush and productive underwater system, so we wanted to examine how climate change might impact their survival,” Stevenson said in a June 1 UBC news release.
The researchers were monitoring the sponges' durability, pumping ability, and skeletal strength. The results showed that the sponges experienced up to a 25 percent loss in tissue and a 50-percent reduction in pumping capacity. Their bodies also became more elastic and lost about half their strength.
"Most worryingly, pumping began to slow within two weeks of exposure to elevated temperatures," Stevenson noted.
Glass sponges survive by pumping enormous volumes of water through their systems, filtering out the bacteria and plankton that they eat and purifying the surrounding seawater. It is estimated that the 19 reefs that are known to be in the Salish Sea can filter up to 100 billion litres of seawater every day, removing about 80 percent of the particles and microbes therein.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's (CPAWS) B.C. chapter, which advocates to protect glass-sponge reefs, says that 95 percent of seawater bacteria are filtered out by glass sponges and that a small reef of the sponges will filter and clean a volume of water every 60 seconds that would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
The reefs are protected by various conservation efforts in B.C's deep northern waters and shallower Salish Sea depths, including federal marine protected areas in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound and smaller buffer zones in Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia. CPAWS says that research shows both measures require expansion to fully protect the delicate structures from potential fishing and resource-exploration damage.
Bottom fishing, especially trawling, can devastate glass-sponge reefs, and suspended sediment can choke the sponges' feeding filters and even kill them. Crab and prawn traps can damage or crush the sponge skeletons.
Ocean acidification occurs when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by ocean water, lessening the ocean's pH and increasing its acidity. This reduces the saturation of calcium carbonate minerals, which are used to form the shells and skeletons of many marine organisms, a process called calcification. It is estimated that since humans started pumping carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere on a massive scale since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a 30-percent increase in ocean acidity.
Jeff Marliave, an Ocean Wise senior researcher and paper coauthor, said in the release that more study is needed to understand how climate change might affect the reefs. “In Howe Sound, we want to figure out a way to track changes in sponge growth, size and area and area in the field so we can better understand potential climate implications at a larger scale. We also want to understand the microbial food webs that support sponges and how they might be influenced by climate cycles.”
Stevenson had a cautionary thought about what is required to guarantee the future safety of the reefs, which have been described as "international treasures".
"When most people think about reefs, they think of tropical shallow-water reefs like the beautiful Great Barrier Reef in Australia,” Stevenson said. "But we have these incredible deep-water reefs in our own backyard in Canada. If we don’t do our best to stand up for them, it will be like discovering a herd of dinosaurs and then immediately dropping dynamite on them."