Sponges are major components of benthic ecosystems, particularly on Caribbean reefs, where their importance in carbon cycling and ecosystem function is only beginning to be understood. There is a recurring statement in the literature, herein called the “sponge increase hypothesis,” asserting that the biomass and diversity of sponges increase with depth on Caribbean reefs through the mesophotic zone (to 150 m). We reviewed evidence for the sponge increase hypothesis, beginning with electronically searchable contributions to the literature, then working backward in time through the bibliographies of more recent citations. We found 17 studies that report one or more metrics associated with sponge abundance or diversity as a function of depth through all or part of the mesophotic zone. None of these studies reported data on either overall sponge biomass or diversity as a function of reef surface area. Among abundance metrics, including cover and density, patterns as a function of depth were disparate across sites and locations. We conclude that there is no evidence to support the sponge increase hypothesis for Caribbean mesophotic reefs and suggest that patterns of sponge abundance as a function of depth are likely to vary for a number of reasons, including substratum type, slope, and orientation. General theories of sponge abundance and diversity as a function of depth await more sophisticated survey studies that employ standardized methods for relating sponge biomass and diversity to reef surface area.
Interest in the ecology of sponges on coral reefs has grown in recent years with mounting evidence that sponges are becoming dominant members of reef communities, particularly in the Caribbean. New estimates of water column processing by sponge pumping activities combined with discoveries related to carbon and nutrient cycling have led to novel hypotheses about the role of sponges in reef ecosystem function. Among these developments, a debate has emerged about the relative effects of bottom-up (food availability) and top-down (predation) control on the community of sponges on Caribbean fore-reefs. In this review, we evaluate the impact of the latest findings on the debate, as well as provide new insights based on older citations. Recent studies that employed different research methods have demonstrated that dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and detritus are the principal sources of food for a growing list of sponge species, challenging the idea that the relative availability of living picoplankton is the sole proxy for sponge growth or abundance. New reports have confirmed earlier findings that reef macroalgae release labile DOC available for sponge nutrition. Evidence for top- down control of sponge community structure by fish predation is further supported by gut content studies and historical population estimates of hawksbill turtles, which likely had a much greater impact on relative sponge abundances on Caribbean reefs of the past. Implicit to investigations designed to address the bottom-up vs. top- down debate are appropriate studies of Caribbean fore-reef environments, where benthic communities are relatively homogeneous and terrestrial influences and abiotic effects are minimized. One recent study designed to test both aspects of the debate did so using experiments conducted entirely in shallow lagoonal habitats dominated by mangroves and seagrass beds. The top-down results from this study are reinterpreted as supporting past research demonstrating predator preferences for sponge species that are abundant in these lagoonal habitats, but grazed away in fore- reef habitats. We conclude that sponge communities on Caribbean fore-reefs of the past and present are largely structured by predation, and offer new directions for research, such as determining the environmental conditions under which sponges may be food-limited (e.g., deep sea, lagoonal habitats) and monitoring changes in sponge community structure as populations of hawksbill turtles rebound.
Consumer-mediated indirect effects at the community level are difficult to demonstrate empirically. Here, we show an explicit indirect effect of overfishing on competition between sponges and reef-building corals from surveys of 69 sites across the Caribbean. Leveraging the large-scale, long-term removal of sponge predators, we selected overfished sites where intensive methods, primarily fish-trapping, have been employed for decades or more, and compared them to sites in remote or marine protected areas (MPAs) with variable levels of enforcement. Sponge-eating fishes (angelfishes and parrotfishes) were counted at each site, and the benthos surveyed, with coral colonies scored for interaction with sponges. Overfished sites had >3 fold more overgrowth of corals by sponges, and mean coral contact with sponges was 25.6%, compared with 12.0% at less-fished sites. Greater contact with corals by sponges at overfished sites was mostly by sponge species palatable to sponge preda- tors. Palatable species have faster rates of growth or reproduction than defended sponge species, which instead make metabolically expensive chemical defenses. These results validate the top-down conceptual model of sponge community ecology for Caribbean reefs, as well as provide an unambiguous justification for MPAs to protect threatened reef-building corals.
An unanticipated outcome of the benthic survey component of this study
was that overfished sites had lower mean macroalgal cover (23.1% vs. 38.1% for less-fished sites), a result that is contrary to prevailing assumptions about seaweed control by herbivorous fishes. Because we did not quantify herbivores for this study, we interpret this result with caution, but suggest that additional large-scale studies comparing intensively overfished and MPA sites are warranted to examine the relative impacts of herbivorous fishes and urchins on Caribbean reefs.
Ecological studies have rarely been performed at the community level across a large biogeographic region. Sponges are now the primary habitat-forming organisms on Caribbean coral reefs. Recent species-level investigations have demonstrated that preda- tory fishes (angelfishes and some parrotfishes) differentially graze sponges that lack chemical defenses, while co-occurring, palatable species heal, grow, reproduce, or recruit at faster rates than defended species. Our prediction, based on resource allocation theory, was that predator removal would result in a greater proportion of palatable species in the sponge community on overfished reefs. We tested this prediction by performing surveys of sponge and fish community composition on reefs having different levels of fishing intensity across the Caribbean. A total of 109 sponge species was recorded from 69 sites, with the 10 most common species comprising 51.0% of sponge cover (3.6–7.7% per species). Nonmetric multidimensional scaling indicated that the species composition of sponge communities depended more on the abundance of sponge-eating fishes than geographic location. Across all sites, multiple-regression analyses revealed that spongivore abundance explained 32.8% of the variation in the proportion of palatable sponges, but when data were limited to geographically adjacent locations with strongly contrasting levels of fishing pressure (Cayman Islands and Jamaica; Curaçao, Bonaire, and Martinique), the adjusted R2 values were much higher (76.5% and 94.6%, respectively). Overfishing of Caribbean coral reefs, particularly by fish trapping, removes sponge predators and is likely to result in greater competition for space between faster-growing palatable sponges and endangered reef-building corals.
Sponges are important members of coral reef ecosystems. They filter water, cycle nutrients, and provide a home to numerous cryptic organisms. Species of sponges differ in shape, color, texture. However, even individuals of the same species can differ in their appearance.
The guide now features over 200 species morphs from throughout the Caribbean. This photographic guide includes over 1,700 images of sponges from coral reefs, mangroves, and shallow lagoons.
Because of their variability, identifying sponges can be a difficult task. Often, microscopic examination of tissue fibers and skeletal elements, called spicules, is necessary in order to distinguish different species. Every image presented in this database has been examined and identified using established taxonomic techniques. Given the difficulty in distinguishing species, the information presented here should serve as a guide, and not a definitive reference for taxonomic identification.