Alert: Beware of Sneezing Sponges

Dear Reader,

Each week I try to offer an insight or story that I have found valuable, hoping it will be useful to you.  I’m not sure if this week’s piece qualifies.  But I am going to go ahead and share a few reflections on an article from the August 10 “Science” section of the New York Times:

“Sneeze by Sneeze, Sponges Fill the Seas With Their Mucus”

Here’s the key thought: The researchers came across sponges sneezing snot while working on a project investigating the role played by sponges in moving nutrients through a reef ecosystem.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know more, but I kept reading.  Apparently, the sponges absorb needed nutrients as the sea passes by, take what they need, and in a slow spasm, eject what they don’t want back into the ocean.  A variety of organisms find this “contribution” exactly what their dietician recommended.

Sounds like an exciting discovery. But such knowledge did not come easily: The work required Niklas Kornder, another marine ecologist at Amsterdam, to spend a lot of time with sponges. “I would spend entire days just looking at the surface of them; it was quite boring,” he recalled.

I’ve heard of monks who spend years in silent meditation, hoping for great insights.  I had never imagined scientists spending their days staring at the surface of sea sponges.  But as many contemplatives know, enlightenment can come in a flash and with time-lapse photography they documented the slow sneezing.

The sponge has been around for at least 600 million years. “It’s the most successful animal that I know of, because it’s so old, and it’s everywhere,” said Jasper de Goeij, a marine ecologist at the University of Amsterdam

This is impressive. I know as I get older, it’s harder for me to go all the places I used to.  I can’t imagine being 600 million years old and able to be “everywhere.” Hopefully there will be carbon-free min-buses with ramps.

“This could give us hints of how early life evolved from these squishy brainless things into these complex organisms building spaceships,” Dr. Ushijima said.

In recent years, I’ve done my share of genealogical research on Ancestry.com.  Beyond my traceable human ancestors, I have always felt some deep connection with certain creatures. For instance, I was mesmerized by the old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies as a kid and instinctively knew I had a deep kinship with Cheetah and all chimpanzees.  Growing up with dogs, I felt a personal bond with Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin.  Loving to swim in the ocean, it was not hard to explain the sense of connection I felt with Flipper. But I never imagined I should include sneezing sponges in my lineage (although it explains why some Saturday mornings I feel like a “squishy brainless thing.”)  I doubt I have much to offer building spaceships. All I know is the next time I go to the beach I’m going to pack plenty of Kleenex.

Comments aside, isn’t the creativity and efficiency of the natural world amazing?

For the complete article, including time-lapse video of actual sponge sneezes, go to sea-sponges-sneezing.html

According to the article, “All three of these marine sponge species are probably sneezing right now. Credit…Benjamin Müller”

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