A new type of meat-eating sponge called the harp sponge, Chondrocladia lyra, has been discovered off the coast of California near Monterey Bay.
Most sponges just filter bits of food from the water that passes through them, but carnivorous sponges—only discovered in the past 20 years—can catch and eat other animals.
Each harp sponge is made up of one to six branches radiating out from the center in a star shape. The branches are horizontal limbs with a row of poles sticking up, resembling the strings of a harp.
The “strings” on the sponge are covered in barbed hooks. They capture small crustaceans as they try to pass through, and the sponge uses a membrane to envelop and digest the creatures.
Scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) discovered the sponge in 2000, and later sent out remotely operated vehicles to collect two sponges and make videos of several more.
“We were just amazed. No one had ever seen this animal with their own eyes before,” said study co-author Lonny Lundsten, according to an article by Our Amazing Planet.
Harp sponges live on the dark ocean floor more than two miles underwater, where resources can be scarce. The researchers think the sponge’s unique shape helps it capture more food by increasing the surface area exposed to the water.
On top of each “harp string” is a small ball which is used for reproduction, and under the sponge is a set of root-like structures that fasten the sponge to the ocean floor.
“We’ve seen only one percent of Monterey Bay and it’s still one of the most well-studied regions of Earth in deep water,” Lundsten said in the article.
“I can look out over the waters from MBARI and imagine thousands of species out there yet to be discovered.”
The research was published in the journal Invertebrate Biology on Oct. 18.
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