The oceans are a massive and unexplored ecosystem. We assume that humans have a thorough understanding of life on this planet and that there is very little possibility of new species being discovered, at least in densely populated regions. The oceans cover a gargantuan 71 percent of Earth’s surface and this vast expanse is incredibly difficult to explore and understand. While many deep-sea creatures remain undiscovered because of how treacherous exploring these areas can be, we have a good understanding of marine fauna that spends its time in the shallow beaches near populated shores. 

As the human push towards space travel takes higher prominence, it is easy to forget that we know only 20% of the ocean terrain and marine biologists are all in agreement that a vast number of marine species are yet to be identified. 

Countering incredibly high pressure (as you venture deeper), lack of light, and currents –  it is very difficult to reach unexplored parts of oceans. Specialized unmanned vehicles are deployed to try and collect samples from places that humans in diving gear simply cannot reach. Under such demanding circumstances for exploration, a team of scientists have identified four new species of sea urchins. And the surprising fact is that they were all spotted in popular diving spots right in front of the public who undertake small diving expeditions. 

The understanding that deep-sea exploration is most likely to bring about new species discovery has been shattered by a researcher from UC Santa Barbara named Thomas Turner.

The findings, published in journal Zootaxa, describe the four new species of sponges. The West Coast of America is one of the most popular and crowded destinations in the world. The recent pandemic brought a spate of new animal life to barren areas and this could be the case here as well. But, the finding is still very significant as it opens us up to the possibility of discovery very close to home.

Methods of Study 

Credits – Thomas Turner/ University of California Santa Barbara

Turner, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology made this discovery because of his frequent dives in the kelp forests off the coast of California. With every drive, he collected samples to try and identify interesting anomalies or even discover new species. Diving for sponges can be tricky but Turner managed to capture hundreds of photographs of these fascinating but overlooked creatures. 

To the untrained eye, sea sponges can often be mistaken for corals. Since most sea sponges have no jarring physical characteristics that can be used to identify or classify them, Turner brought back samples to study in the lab. This diligence paid off in 2020 when Turner identified his first new species of sponge using these molecular techniques. It was named Galaxia gaviotensis, because of the star-like patterns on its body. He made this discovery off the coast of Santa Barbara, one of the most densely populated shorelines in the world. 

He suggested the common name Gaviota galaxy sponge. “Like a galaxy, the type species of the genus is packed with a diversity of stars,” he was quoted in the press release by University of California – Santa Barbara, referring to the shape of its spicules, microscopic objects that provide structural support to many sponges.

The ocean floor is tricky to explore as well, because of all the kelp, algae, fish and corals. Discovering three other species, namely – S. goletensis, named after the town of Goleta; and S. kuyamu, named after the village of Kuyamu, a community of Barbareño Chumash that once stood onshore at the site where the sponge was discovered. Turner also concluded in his research paper that these two sea sponges were more closely related to each other than any other known sponges.

Turner coined the name S. jali for the third species after the patterns on its surface, which reminded him of a jali, a latticed screen common in Indo-Islamic architecture. He named the final species after Nausicaä, a character in the Hayao Miyazaki film “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.” The film is about humans and nature, he explained, and a lot of the weird organisms in the fictional world filter and clean the environment like a sponge. In fact, sponges are unique in consuming even viruses and bacteria, he added; many other filter feeders forgo these minute morsels in favor of much larger plankton.

Significance of Findings 

Sponges, being filter feeders, have remained unchanged for millions of years. They have been a part of our marine ecosystem for hundreds of millions of years and identifying new species now, is a great find. Their robustness comes from the simplicity of their design. Much like other creatures that have withstood time, sponges have retained simple yet effective characteristics. They retain only crucial functions and it is often hard to classify them because their energy is focussed only on feeding and survival. “For basically 200 years, taxonomists have struggled to figure out how to classify the sponges because they offer so few morphological characteristics,” Turner was quoted as saying. 

Only in the past few decades have researchers straightened out the different orders of sponges. “A taxonomic order is a pretty big group of animals,” Turner continued. “For example, cats, dogs and walruses are all in the same order: Carnivora.”

Taxonomy is never carried out just for taxonomists. It’s done to lay a foundation for researchers in other fields to build upon. “Trying to conduct research without taxonomy is kind of like if you went to the Library of Congress and there weren’t any librarians, and all the books were just in a big pile,” Turner said. “There’s plenty of information there, but you can’t do anything with it. The taxonomist’s job is the librarian’s job: to organize all that information so that everyone else can study it.”

DNA sequencing offers a path forward to understanding these animals, but there’s still a lot of painstaking morphological analysis in Turner’s future. That’s because, by combining these two methodologies, he can bridge the gap between modern molecular biology and our historical reliance on physiology. “That is the only way out of this morass that we’re in regarding sponge taxonomy,” Turner said, “combining the morphology with the genetics.”