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Glass sponges take advantage of retreating Antarctic ice shelves
Date:7/12/2013

aled large numbers of ascidians and only occasional glass sponges during an earlier expedition with the ice-breaking research vessel 'Polarstern' in 2007, four years later we found no ascidians at all. These pioneer species had completely disappeared, replaced by three times the number of glass sponges, including several juvenile individuals", reports Laura Fillinger, lead author of the study.

Until this time scientists had assumed that communities on the Antarctic sea bed only change very slowly because of the very low temperature (minus two degrees Celsius) and patchy supply of food in pack-ice covered waters. "We now know that glass sponges may undergo boom-and-bust cycles, allowing them to quickly colonize new habitats in a short period of time", says project leader Prof. Dr. Claudio Richter.

"To the organisms living on the sea bed, the disappearance of the hundred-metre-thick Larsen A ice shelf must have been like the heavens opening up above them", he adds. Where cold, darkness and food shortages had previously reigned, sunlight now allows plankton growth in surface waters and, hence, a rain of food comes down to the sea bed.

Glass sponges feed on the smallest plankton, which they filter from the water. The animals grow to a size of up to two metres, and their vase-like bodies provide perfect hiding, spawning and shelter opportunities for fish, invertebrates and many other sea dwellers. "Like corals, sponges create their own habitats. To an extent they are like cities on the sea bed. There is something going on wherever they grow, and this attracts other sea dwellers to them", says Claudio Richter.

New spaces are being created for such underwater worlds wherever the ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula are retreating or breaking up. However, scientists cannot yet definitively say whether this means that glass sponges will be one of the beneficiaries of climate change. Laura Fillinger: "There are still too many
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Contact: Sina Loeschke
medien@awi.de
49-471-483-12008
Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres
Source:Eurekalert

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