High and thin marine sponges like this can survive in low oxygen environments using a chimney effect to filter the water. (Photo courtesy of Sally Leys)
A researcher at the University of Alberta has discovered that marine sponges can be a way to oxygenate the oceans and keep other species living in the water alive.
Sea sponges have found ways to survive in the extreme conditions of the Earth, millions of years before the oceans are properly oxygenated and able to withstand a multitude of species. A new study by Sally Leys University professor Sally Leys shows that the modern sea sponge was able to demonstrate how ancient sponges survived in ancient, oxygen-poor marine waters.
"There was no oxygen in the first oceans on Earth, so animals like sponges were instrumental in letting oxygen stay in the ocean," she said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
Leys was interested in how animals appeared on Earth, how single-celled organisms turned into multicellular organisms. This is what led her to study the ocean environment and eventually the sponges.
Leys explained that when plants and other organisms are on the surface of the water, they photosynthesize in the sun and fall to the bottom to decompose. Bacteria eat these organisms, which use the oxygen that has been released into the water through photosynthesis.
"The sponges work to filter the water, preventing things from decomposing, which equals more oxygen remaining in the water."
Leys and other researchers tried to test how little oxygen the different types of sponges could survive, and found that different sponges need different levels of oxygen.
Sponges on the West Coast, for example, hardly need oxygen to survive, while other East sponges need a little more.
This means that sponges could be present in a much simpler way in the first oceans of the Earth, surviving in water with little oxygenation and slowly adding oxygen to allow more species to thrive and thrive.
Impacts of climate change
Leys also explained that warmer waters have less oxygen, which is something to consider, as global warming becomes more prominent.
"With climate change, oxygen levels are likely to change soon. Knowing the needs of animals helps managers to make shelters for animals to survive. "
As oxygen levels decline, species that require higher levels of oxygen survive. Leys said the sponges could be used to help the government decide which regions of the oceans will put extra protection as temperatures continue to rise so they can try to maintain the vitality of species that inhabit the water on Earth.
Sponges also grow in fresh water, which means they can help monitor the health of these bodies of water.
Life under the ocean
Leys explained that understanding the conditions necessary for sea sponges is useful for better understanding life under the ocean. And life under the ocean is essential to life on Earth, Leys said.
Sponges do much for the oceans, such as recycling water, keeping it oxygenated, and providing habitats for other marine creatures.
"People around [the sponges] treat them as pets by modifying their behavior to keep them safe and protect them.
People see things on the top of the ocean, like garbage, but they rarely see what's underneath. Leys described him as working in a room but never taking time to see what is next.
"You need to know what's there to know what's going on so you can moderate your activities and work together to keep the place working."