B.C. fishing vessel brings up new species of glass sponge from undersea volcano

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      A sponge saved and frozen by a bycatch monitor on a longline fishing vessel working over a submerged volcano off the coast of Haida Gwaii last summer has turned out to be a new species.

      A paper published in the scientific journal Zootaxa on February 24 and authored by Henry Reiswig, a world expert in glass sponges, describes the new-to-science specimen as Doconesthes dustinchiversi, a new (and only the second) species of the genus Doconesthes.

      According to the paper (for which a preview may be viewed here), it is the first time a member of the genus has been reported outside the North Atlantic Ocean and the first found in the Pacific Ocean.

      From a 3,000-metre undersea volcano

      The marine glass sponge came from the Bowie Seamount, a flat-topped undersea volcano rich in marine organisms that rises 3,000 metres from the ocean floor to within 24 metres of the surface. The seamount is at the southern end of a subsea volcanic mountain range and is located about 180 kilometres west of Haida Gwaii, or the Queen Charlotte Islands.

      Glass sponges are different from other sponges in that they have a silica-based skeletal system; some kinds build huge reefs.

      Biologist Melissa Frey, curator of invertebrates at the Royal B.C. Museum, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that the specimen found its way to her as the result of an agreement the institution has with Victoria-based Archipelago Marine Research Ltd., a consulting firm that provides fisheries and other services to both public- and private-sector clients. Archipelago was involved as part of a Fisheries and Oceans Canada project last summer.

      Specimen looked different

      “There’s usually some pretty interesting specimens that come up [from the Bowie Seamount],” Frey told the Straight. “When I looked at it and tried to identify it, it didn’t fit in.”

      Frey sent the sponge to Reiswig, who is retired from McGill University’s biology department but is still involved in research and under whose tutelage she has been studying glass sponges. He confirmed it as a new species and named it after a former colleague, Dustin Chivers, who saved his life after a diving mishap in 1962.

      “These glass sponges are really, really unique,” Frey said of the organisms. “This is the only area in the world where glass sponges build reefs.”

      It is not known if the new sponge forms reefs.

      Sponge reefs thought to be extinct

      The reefs, which were thought by scientists to be extinct until their discovery in the late 1980s, are up to five storeys high, 9,000 years old, and cover as much as 1,000 square kilometres of seabed. They are found in four areas of the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area and serve as a valuable habitat for a wide range of marine life in the Hecate Strait and the Queen Charlotte Basin, east of the Bowie Seamount. Those reefs are in the process of being legally protected.

      “I’m sure there are other unique species waiting to be discovered,” Frey said of the biological diversity associated with the Bowie Seamount.

      According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the seamount received official marine protected area status in 2008.



      Dave Colwell

      Feb 28, 2015 at 10:56am

      Re. Glass Sponges in BC:
      "The reefs, which were thought by scientists to be extinct until their discovery in the late 1980's"

      This statement is NOT true. I personally saw them in 1980 in Howe Sound and have pictures taken in 1984. The reefs which I saw at that time were so common and profuse at 100 feet that I nor my buddies did not consider necessarily reporting them. They are most found on steep to vertical walls or underwater bluffs. I have no idea where this idea came from. By the way we call them cloud sponges and there is another species which commonly appears above this zone....this one is more fibrous but is also made of silicon and has a flask shape rather than the greatly divided "cloud shape" of the deeper water variety. it is duller in colour rather than the yellow colour of the Cloud sponges. Both are delicate and can be easily damaged by careless divers.

      Martin Dunphy

      Feb 28, 2015 at 12:50pm


      Thanks for the comment. However, I sourced that information from a variety of scientific and environmental-organization sources, including the paper noted above, the David Suzuki Foundation, CPAWS, National Geographic, and others.
      The Queen Charlotte Basin reefs were discovered in late 1987-88, and the Georgia Basin reefs in 2005. The cloud sponges are a different species, albeit also a reef-building one. The glass sponge reefs, though, were definitely widely believed to have been extinct by scientists worldwide, which is why the B.C. reefs are commonly referred to as "Jurassis Park submerged".