This Week in History: the fascinating world of Sponges

Watch The invertebrate collection at the Royal BC Museum is home to more than 70-thousand specimens - ranging from microscopic plankton to giant squid. And one part of the collection that is rapidly growing is the sponges.

The invertebrate collection at the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) is home to more than 70,000 lots of animal specimens.

“Invertebrates are animals without backbones” Heidi Gartner explains. Gartner is RBCM’s Invertebrate Collections Manager and Researcher.

“The more common invertebrates that people know are things like crabs and snails and seastars, those sorts of animals, but here in the collection we have everything from microscopic plankton all the way up to giant squid.”

The collection also contains sponges.

“Sponges are very strange animals, even for invertebrates,” says Gartner. “They’re basically just collections of cells. They don’t form any tissues or any organs. They’re just filter-feeding blobs. But, despite this basic body feature, they’re really important for the environment. They filter water, so they’re good indicators of habitat or water quality, and they also provide refuge for other animals.”

One fascinating type of sponge is the glass sponge.

“They build supporting structure, matrix, or you can call it a skeleton even, out of glass,” says Gartner “so they literally build their bodies out of glass.”

These animals have existed since the early Cambrian period, yet Gartner explains that new species are still being discovered.

“Just off of our coast, on a seamount, so an underwater mountain, they collected a specimen in 2018, as part of a Pacific Seamounts Expedition.”

The specimen was studied by Dr. Henry Reiswig, one of the world’s leading experts in glass sponges, and a research associate at the Royal BC Museum.

“And he’s discovered that this is a species that’s never been seen before in the world” says Gartner. “It will become described, and identified, and given a name” and it will be housed in the invertebrate type collection.

“We’re lucky that we also had another local expert, Dr. Bill Austin,” says Gartner, “and he studied the coast for over sixty years. He was one of the founding fathers of Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, and the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea.

Austin passed away in 2018. Austin’s family and his colleagues have created a website in his honour, and have donated his collection to the Museum.

“He’s added over 600 lots of specimens that represent over 265 different species. And these can be accessed by researchers around the world. His colleagues are coming in, but more importantly, it’s available for students, and the public.”

Austin’s collection adds to the remarkably diverse invertebrate collection at the RBCM.

“We’re actually still learning a lot about our oceans, and the animals that live in it. That’s the real function of museums,” says Gartner, “to continue our learning.”

Learn more about the glass sponge research at the Royal BC Museum here.


Veronica CooperVeronica Cooper

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