Tag Archives: sea sponge

Episode 199: Carnivorous Sponges!

Thanks to Lorenzo for this week’s topic, carnivorous sponges! How can a sponge catch and eat animals? What is its connection to the mystery of the Eltanin Antenna? Let’s find out!

Further reading/watching:

New carnivorous harp sponge discovered in deep sea (this has a great video attached)

How Nature’s Deep Sea ‘Antenna’ Puzzled the World

Asbestopluma hypogea, beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The lyre sponge, also beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The ping-pong tree sponge, also beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The so-called Eltanin antenna:

A better photo of Chondrocladia concrescens, looking less like an antenna and more like a grape stem:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about carnivorous sponges, which is a suggestion from Lorenzo.

When I got Lorenzo’s email, I thought “oh, neat” and added carnivorous sponges to the giant, complicated list I keep of topic suggestions from listeners and my Aunt Janice, and also animals I want to learn more about. When I noticed carnivorous sponges on the list the other day, I thought, “Wait, sponges are filter feeders. Are there even any carnivorous ones?”

The answer is yes! Most sponges are filter feeders, sure, but there’s a family of sponges that are actually carnivorous. Caldorhizidae is the family, and it’s made up of deep-sea sponges that have only been discovered recently. We know there are lots more species out there because scientists have seen them during deep-sea rover expeditions without being able to study them closely.

We talked about sponges way back in episode 41, with some mentions of them in episodes 64 and 168 too, but only the filter feeder kind. Let’s first learn how a filter feeder sponge eats, specifically members of the class Demosponge, since that’s the class that the family Caldorhizidae belongs to.

Sponges have been around for more than half a billion years, since the Cambrian period and possibly before, and they’re still going strong. Early on, sponges evolved a simple but effective body plan and just stuck to it. Of course there are lots and lots and lots of different species with different shapes and sizes, but they almost all work the same way.

Most have a skeleton, but not the kind of skeleton that you think of as an actual skeleton. They don’t have bones. The skeleton is usually made of calcium carbonate and forms a sort of dense net that’s covered with soft body tissues. The tissues are often further strengthened with small pointy structures called spicules. If you’ve ever played a game called jacks, where you bounce a ball and pick up little metal pieces between each bounce, spicules sort of resemble jacks.

The sponge has lots of open pores in the outside of its body, which generally just resembles a sack or sometimes a tube. One end of the sack is attached to the bottom of the ocean, or a rock or something. The pores are lined with cells that each have a teensy structure called a flagellum, which is sort of like a tiny tail. The sponge pumps water through the pores by beating those flagella. Water flows into the sponge’s tissues, which are made up of lots of tiny connected chambers. Cells in the walls of these chambers filter out particles of food from the water, much of it microscopic, and release any waste material. The sponge doesn’t have a stomach or any kind of digestive tract, though. The cells process the food individually and pass on any extra nutrients to adjoining cells.

Obviously, this body plan is really effective for filter feeding, not so effective for chasing and killing small animals to eat. The sponge you may have in your kitchen is probably synthetic or manufactured from a sponge gourd, not an actual bath sponge animal, but it’s arranged the same way. Go look at that sponge, or just imagine it, and then compare it mentally to, say, a tiger. Very different.

But in 2007, an underwater rover captured something on film that astounded researchers. The rover was investigating some undersea caves in the Mediterranean, where a tiny sponge known as Asbestopluma hypogea lives. The sponge only grows about half an inch long, or 1.5 cm, and everyone assumed it was just a regular old sponge. You know, a filter feeder. It did have an unusual structure of filaments covered with hook-like spicules, but until 2007 no one realized those spicules were actually hooks and used to snag tiny animals like copepods, nematodes, and even brittle stars. Then they saw it on film and freaked out! Well, they probably freaked out. I like to think they did.

But wait, you are probably saying, or at least thinking, sponges don’t even have a digestive system! How do they eat the animals they catch?

It works like this. When a tiny animal floats or swims past and gets snagged by the hooked spicules, which by the way is a passive process, the sponge starts growing a membrane that envelops the animal within a few hours. The membrane is made up of specialized cells that contain beneficial bacteria, and the bacteria help digest the animal so that the cells can absorb the nutrients. The process can take up to ten days. It’s similar in some ways to how carnivorous plants digest animals, as we talked about in episode 129.

One interesting thing is that while A. hypogea is a deep-sea sponge, it’s also found in shallow underwater caves. Further research has suggested that underwater caves may shelter other animals that are usually deep-sea dwellers. One cave where the sponge is found is only 16 feet below the surface, or five meters, whereas it lives around 2,300 feet deep, or 700 meters, in open ocean. Since its discovery in both the caves and in deeper parts of the Mediterranean, it’s been classified as a protected species and parts of the Mediterranean where it lives have also been protected.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the harp sponge was discovered off the coast of northern California. The harp sponge lives up to 11,500 feet below the surface, or 3,500 m, and it gets its name because of its shape. Like a harp, which has strings stretched down from an arched frame, the harp sponge has a structure called a vane that consists of a horizontal branch with straight, thin branches growing up from it in a row. The harp sponge can have up to six vanes, and where they connect in the middle the sponge has root-like filaments that anchor it to the sea floor. It’s no wonder that people used to think sponges were plants.

The vanes of the harp sponge are covered with hooked spicules like the grabby half of Velcro, but pointier. At the top of the vertical branches, little balls of sperm form and are released into the water to fertilize the eggs of other harp sponges. The sponge also has egg development areas about halfway up the vertical branches, which have tiny filaments to help it catch sperm released by other sponges. When it catches sperm, the cells of the filament fuse with it and use it to fertilize the nearest eggs. You can see both the sperm packets and the egg development areas in a picture in the show notes, and both look like little bulbs.

I should mention that all these carnivorous sponges are incredibly pretty.

The harp sponge can grow up to almost 15 inches across, or 37 cm, which is pretty big for a sponge.

The ping-pong tree sponge is another newly discovered carnivorous sponge, and arguably it has the best name. It can grow up to 20 inches tall, or 50 cm, but most of its height comes from its central stalk that anchors it to the sea floor. At the top of the stalk, smaller stems branch out and at the end of the stalks, little bulbs around 3 to 5 mm in diameter grow like grapes on a grape stem. The bulbs resemble little ping-pong balls (also known as table tennis, but ping-pong is funnier and refers to the sound the little hollow ball makes as it bounces from a paddle and off the table).

We don’t know much at all about the ping-pong tree sponge. It’s been found off the coast of South America near Easter Island, around 8,800 feet deep, or 2,700 meters. So far it seems to live in areas where the sea floor is made up largely of hardened lava.

We’ll finish with a mystery related to carnivorous sponges! In 1964 a research ship called the USNS Eltanin was photographing the sea floor in the Antarctic, and on August 29th it took a photograph of something weird off the coast of Cape Horn. Cape Horn is the very southern tip of South America except for a few islands, and is considered the point where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. That’s an arbitrary distinction made by humans since obviously the world’s oceans are connected everywhere, but it’s useful for telling people where you found a weird thing in the water. The picture was taken at a depth of almost two and a half miles, or 3,904 meters.

The picture shows what looks like a stick growing straight up from the ocean floor, with cross-shaped pieces of equal lengths sticking straight out to the sides, and a little bulb at the very top. It looks for all the world like a weird radio antenna, and it’s actually been called the Eltanin antenna.

The picture appeared in a newspaper article later that year, 1964, and drew the attention of UFO enthusiasts. By 1968 many people thought the picture showed a piece of machinery left by alien visitors for unknown but probably sinister purposes, although why they left the machinery at the bottom of the ocean, no one could say. Other people thought the antenna had been planted by the Soviets for likewise unknown but probably sinister purposes, ditto no idea why it was at the bottom of the ocean. Other people pooh-poohed all that and said it was probably just something that had fallen off a ship and lodged upright in the mud.

Instead, it turns out that the so-called antenna is probably actually a carnivorous sponge, Chondrocladia concrescens, known to science since 1880 although no one knew it was carnivorous back then. Disappointingly, better pictures of the sponge show that it looks more like a grape stem than an antenna. These days even diehard UFO researchers acknowledge that the Eltanin antenna was just a sponge, although a pretty neat one. Mystery solved!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 168: The Longest Lived

This week let’s take a look at some animals (and other living organisms) that live the longest!

This isn’t Methuselah itself (scientists aren’t saying which tree it is, to keep it safe), but it’s a bristlecone pine:

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree in Sri Lanka, planted in 288 BCE by a king:

Some trees of the quaking aspen colony called Pando:

Glass sponges (this one’s called the Venus Flower Basket):

Further reading:

Glass sponge as a living climate archive

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to look at the world’s longest lived animals and other organisms. We’re straying into plant territory a little bit here, but I think you’ll agree that this is some fascinating information.

The oldest human whose age we can verify was a French woman who lived to be 122 years old, plus 164 days. Her name was Jeanne Calment and she came from a long-lived family. Her brother lived to the age of 97. Jeanne was born in 1875 and didn’t die until 1997. But the sad thing is, she outlived her entire family. She had a daughter who died of a lung disease called pleurisy at only 36 years old—in fact, on her 36th birthday—and her only grandson died in a car wreck in his late 30s. Jeanne remained healthy physically and mentally until nearly the end of her life, although she had always had poor eyesight.

It’s not all that rare for humans to live past the age of 100, but it is rare for anyone to live to age 110 or beyond. But other animals have average lifespans that are much, much longer than that of humans.

In episode 163 we talked about the Greenland shark, which can live for hundreds of years. The oldest Greenland shark examined was possibly as old as 512 years old, and the sharks may live much longer than that. It’s actually the longest-lived vertebrate known.

No one’s sure which terrestrial vertebrate lives the longest, but it’s probably a tortoise. Giant tortoises are famous for their longevity, routinely living beyond age 100 and sometimes more than 200 years old. The difficulty of verifying a tortoise’s age is that to humans, tortoises all look pretty much alike and we don’t always know exactly when a particular tortoise was hatched. Plus, of course, we know even less about tortoises in the wild than we do ones kept in captivity. But probably the oldest known is an Aldabra giant tortoise that may have been 255 years old when it died in 2006. We talked about giant tortoises in episode 95.

But for the really long-lived creatures, we have to look at the plant world. The oldest individual tree whose age we know for certain is a Great Basin bristlecone pine called Methuselah. Methuselah lives in the Inyo National Forest in the White Mountains in California, which of course is on the west coast of North America. In 1957 a core sample was taken from it and other bristlecone pines that grow in what’s called the ancient bristlecone pine forest. Many trees show growth rings in the trunk that make a pattern that’s easy to count, so the tree’s age is easy to determine as long as you have someone who is patient enough to count all the rings. Well, Methuselah was 4,789 years old in 1957. It probably germinated in 2833 BCE. Other trees in the forest were nearly as old, with at least one possibly older, but the sample from that older tree is lost and no one’s sure where the tree the sample came from is.

Another bristlecone pine, called the Prometheus Tree, germinated even earlier than Methuselah, probably in 2880 BCE, but it’s now dead. A grad student cut it down in 1964, possibly by accident—stories vary and no one actually knows why he cut the tree down. The bristlecone pine is now a protected species.

There are other trees estimated to be as old as Methuselah. This includes a yew in North Wales that may be 5,000 years old and is probably at least 4,000 years old, and a cypress in Iran that’s at least 2,000 years old and possibly 5,000 years old. Sequoyahs from western North America, baobabs from Africa, and kauri trees from New Zealand are all documented to live over a thousand years and possibly many thousands of years.

In at least one case, a sacred fig tree in Sri Lanka, we know exactly when the tree was planted. A Buddhist nun brought a branch of the original sacred fig tree, the one that the Buddha was sitting under when he achieved enlightenment, to Sri Lanka and presented it to King Devanampiya Tissa. He planted the branch in the royal park in 288 BCE, where it grew into a tree which remains in the park to this day, more than 2,000 years later. It’s cared for by Buddhists monks and people come from all over Sri Lanka to visit the tree. If this sounds a little too good to be true, the easiest way to grow a sacred fig is to use a cutting from another tree. The cutting will root and grow into a new tree.

Not all trees are individuals. You may not know this and I didn’t either until recently. Some trees grow as colonies. The most well known tree colony is called Pando, made up of quaking aspens that live in Utah in North America. While the individual trees are only around 130 years old on average, Pando itself has been alive for an estimated 80,000 years. Each tree is a male clone and all the trees are connected by a root system that covers 106 acres, or 43 hectares. Because its root system is so huge and deep, Pando is able to survive forest fires that kill all other trees. Pando’s trees die, but afterwards the roots just send up shoots that grow into new trees. Researchers estimate that it’s been 10,000 years since Pando’s trees actually flowered. Unfortunately, Pando is currently threatened by humans stopping the forest fires that otherwise would kill off rival trees, and threatened by grazing livestock that kill off young trees before they can become established.

Pando isn’t the only quaking aspen colony known, though. There are a number of smaller colonies in western North America. Researchers think it’s an adaptation to frequent forest fires and a semi-arid climate that makes it harder for seedlings to grow. Quaking aspens that live in northeastern North America, where the climate is much wetter, grow from seeds instead of forming colonies.

Other species of tree form colonies too, including a spruce tree in Sweden whose root system dates to nearly 10,000 years ago and a pine colony in Tasmania that is about the same age but with individual trees that are themselves 3,000 years old. Not all long-lived plant colonies are trees, though. A colony of sea grass in the Mediterranean may be as much as 200,000 years old although it may be only 12,000 years old, researchers aren’t sure.

I could go on and on about long-lived plants, but let’s get back to the animals. If the Greenland shark is the longest lived vertebrate known, what’s the longest lived invertebrate? Here’s your reminder that a vertebrate is an animal with some form of spine, while an invertebrate has no spine.

Many invertebrates that live in the ocean have long lifespans. Corals of various kinds can live for thousands of years, for instance. The ocean quahog, a type of clam that lives in the North Atlantic Ocean, grows very slowly compared to other clams. It isn’t fully mature until it’s nearly six years old, and populations that live in cold water can live a long time. Sort of like tree rings, the age of a clam can be determined by counting the growth rings on its shell, and a particular clam dredged up from the coast of Iceland in 2006 was discovered to be 507 years old. Its age was double-checked by carbon-14 dating of the shell, which verified that it was indeed just over 500 years old when it was caught and died. Researchers aren’t sure how long the quahog can live, but it’s a safe bet that there are some alive today that are older than 507 years, possibly a lot older.

But the invertebrate that probably lives the longest is the glass sponge. It’s found throughout the world’s oceans, but is especially common in cold waters of the Northern Pacific and Antarctic. It usually grows up to about a foot tall, or 30 cm, although some species grow larger, and is roughly shaped like a vase. Most species are white or pale in color. In some places the sponges fuse together to form reefs, with the largest found so far 65 feet tall, or 20 meters, and nearly four and a half miles long, or 7 km.

The glass sponge is a simple creature with a lattice-like skeleton made of silica covered with porous tissue. It anchors itself to a rock or the ocean floor, frequently in deep water, and as water flows through the openings in its body, it filters microscopic food out. So it basically lives a very slow, very plant-like existence.

One glass sponge, Monorhaphis chuni, anchors itself to the sea floor with a long basal spicule that looks like a stem. This stem can be over nine feet long, or 3 m. It needs to be long because it lives in deep water where there’s a lot of soft sediment at the bottom. In 1986 the skeleton of a dead Monorhaphis was collected from the East China Sea so it could be studied. Since a glass sponge adds layers of skeleton to its basal spicule every year as it grows, you guessed it, the layers can be counted just like tree rings—although it requires an electron microscope to count since the layers are very small. The sponge was determined to be about 11,000 years old when it died. Researchers are able to determine local ocean temperature changes from year to year by studying the rings, just as tree rings give us information about local climate.

Let’s finish with something called an endolith. An endolith isn’t a particular animal or even a group of related animals. An endolith is an organism that lives inside a rock or other rock-like substance, such as coral. Some are fungi, some lichens, some amoebas, some bacteria, and various other organisms, many of them single-celled and all of them very small if not microscopic. Some live in tiny cracks in a rock, some live in porous rocks that have space between grains of mineral, some bore into the rock. Many are considered extremophiles, living in rocks inside Antarctic permafrost, at the tops of the highest mountains, in the abyssal depths of the oceans, and at least two miles, or 3 km, below the earth’s surface.

Various endoliths live on different minerals, including potassium, sulfur, and iron. Some endoliths even eat other endoliths. We don’t know a whole lot about them, but studies of endoliths found in soil deep beneath the ocean’s floor suggest that they grow extremely slowly. Like, from one generation to the next could be as long as 10,000 years, with the oldest endoliths potentially being millions of years old—even as old as the sediment itself, which dates to 100 million years old.

That is way older than Jeanne Calment and all those trees.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 041: Comb Jellies and Sea Sponges THE CONTROVERSY

We’re learning about comb jellies this week, along with the sea sponge, and the MASSIVE CONTROVERSY ABOUT THE TWO THAT IS PITTING SCIENTIST AGAINST SCIENTIST I might be overstating it just a bit

The lovely Arctic comb jelly:

The lovely Venus’s girdle comb jelly:

A fossil comb jelly. Probably lovely when it was alive:

A sea sponge (most are not this Muppet-like):

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

For this week’s episode, we’re revisiting jellyfish, more properly known as jellies. The first jelly episode is far and away our most popular and I can’t figure out why. I mean, I’m glad people like it. This time, we’re going to learn all about comb jellies, which are not really as exciting as true jellies. There is no ship-sinkingly enormous comb jelly lurking in the oceans of the world. But they are really interesting.

When you think of a jelly, you probably picture a roughly bell-shaped thing with long stinging tentacles. But most comb jellies are more like egg-shaped blobs, and either don’t have tentacles at all or only have relatively small tentacles that don’t sting. Although they look alike superficially, comb jellies and true jellies are so different that scientists don’t think they’re very closely related at all. Comb jellies are officially called ctenophores (TEN-oh-fours), spelled with a c-t at the beginning if you were wondering. I looked up the pronunciation. Yeah, I know, I pronounced Pliny wrong all through episode 12, but come on, it looks like it should be pronounced Pliny and not Plinny. It’s not like anyone ever came up to me and said, “Hey, what about that Plinny, what a guy.” I just read the name.

But I digress, inexplicably.

Instead of pulsing its bell to maneuver in the water, a comb jelly has rows of tiny compact filaments called cilia, fused together in combs that help it swim. The combs are also called swimming plates.

There are two main types of comb jellies, those with tentacles and those without tentacles. The ones without are called Nuda, or Beroids, and while they don’t have tentacles, they do have combs of extra-large cilia, called macrocilia, that sever prey into pieces small enough to swallow. Mostly they eat other comb jellies. Beroids also have big mouths, but a beroid can actually seal its mouth shut while it’s moving so it’s more streamlined.

Comb jellies with tentacles are divided into eight orders roughly based on body shape. The most common order, the cydippida, are egg-shaped with a pair of thin tentacles that they use sort of like fishing lines. The tentacles are long and sticky, trapping tiny organisms or particles of food. Some species have branched tentacles but none have more than two. The tentacles can retract—when you see a picture of a comb jelly with a weird spring-like thing sticking out from its bottom, that’s a retracted tentacle, not anything gross like a poop. The tentacles contain cells called colloblasts. When an organism touches a tentacle, the colloblast cells rupture and basically release glue that keeps the prey from escaping.

A cydippid comb jelly also has eight combs that run from the top of the body to the bottom, which makes it look sort of like a fancy decorated egg. Comb jelly cilia are iridescent, by the way, so they reflect light in rainbow patterns. Basically what I’m saying is, these little guys are actually really pretty.

All comb jellies are predators, but most eat plankton and other tiny food, because most comb jellies are really small—only a few inches long at most. Bigger species may eat krill and small crustaceans. The biggest comb jelly, Cestum veneris, more often called Venus’s girdle, can grow some five feet long, or 1.5 meters, but only some two inches, or 5 cm, wide. It looks like a nearly transparent or purplish ribbon and lives in tropical and subtropical seas. I wouldn’t want to touch it, but it’s not exactly dangerous. In fact, it’s so delicate that a diver attempting to touch one may accidentally destroy it instead. A lot of comb jellies are that delicate, making them hard to study, so we still don’t know a whole lot about them.

Comb jellies only have one body opening, called a mouth for convenience sake although the jelly uses it for anything that requires a body opening. Until recently, researchers thought that included pooping. Yeah, now you see why it’s not exactly a mouth. But it turns out that a comb jelly has pores on the opposite end of its body from its mouth opening that it uses to release at least some particles of indigestible food. This is interesting since it helps scientists understand how the anus evolved.

There aren’t that many species of comb jellies, maybe 100 or so. But new ones are discovered occasionally, especially deep-sea comb jellies. While comb jellies that live near the surface of the ocean are usually transparent, many deep-sea species are red, since it’s a color most deep-sea animals can’t see. Most are also bioluminescent, and when threatened some species will secrete a luminescent goo. The predator may get confused and attack the goo while the comb jelly swims away as fast as its frantically waving cilia can take it.

If you’ve listened to episode 15, about the hammerhead shark and megalodon, you’ll remember that we don’t have a lot of shark fossils because shark skeletons are made of cartilage, not bone. We just have a lot of shark teeth, mostly. Now think about how big and solid sharks are, then think about how smooshy jellies are. Then try to imagine what a jelly fossil might look like. Yeah.

We do have some comb jelly fossils, though. But we don’t have many. Like, five. We have five. The oldest are from the mid-Cambrian, some 500 million years ago, but they were very different from the comb jellies living today. They had lots more combs, for one thing—between 24 and 80 instead of 8. Researchers have found other fossils that may be of comb jellies. There’s a good possibility that they were widespread throughout the oceans back then—but from genetic testing and other molecular analysis, it appears that the comb jellies alive today are all descended from a common ancestor that survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction around 65 million years ago. So it’s possible that in addition to so many dinosaurs dying off, almost all comb jellies went extinct then too.

Just think, if that one species hadn’t survived and evolved into the comb jellies we have today, researchers might not have a clue what animal those comb jelly fossils represented. If you know about the Burgess shale fossils that have baffled and fascinated paleontologists for decades now, because so many of the fossils don’t resemble anything living today, then it’ll make sense to learn that a few of those five comb jelly fossils were actually found in the Burgess shale.

There are some other comb jelly fossils discovered in China and dated to 520 million years ago. But they don’t resemble the comb jellies living today at all because they had skeletons and spines. Pretty much every fossil found from the Cambrian had supportive or armored structures, even ones like comb jellies that don’t have those things today. I’ll probably do a whole episode eventually about the Cambrian period and the Burgess shale discoveries.

Anyway, there’s some controversy going on right now regarding whether comb jellies or sponges were the species that gave rise ultimately to all other animals, so let’s take a quick side trip and learn about sponges.

The sponge is a very simple animal, still around today. They don’t have any specialized structures like nerves or a digestive system or a circulatory system or organs. They’re just a sponge, basically. And if you were wondering, the sponge you use to clean your kitchen is named after the sea sponge, not vice versa, and you can still get actual dried sea sponges to use for cleaning. They’ve been used that way for millennia. It wasn’t until 1866 that scientists even realized sponges were animals and not plants.

Living sponges just hang out in the ocean or freshwater, stuck to a rock or something. Water flows through them and washes food and oxygen in and waste out. That’s it. That’s all a sponge does is let water flow through it. I feel like there’s a life lesson to be learned there, but I’m too busy doing ten things at once to figure it out.

Mostly sponges eat bacteria and other tiny food particles, although some eat small crustaceans and a few have developed a symbiotic relationship with plantlike microorganisms, which live safely in the sponge and produce enough food for both it and the sponge. Every so often a sponge will release eggs or sperm into the water. If the conditions around a sponge deteriorate, some species will create bundles of unspecialized cells called gemmules. When conditions improve, the gemmules will either grow into new sponges or, if the sponge that created them has died, it will recolonize the original sponge’s skeleton.

A sponge’s skeleton is a sponge, by the way. If you’ve got a natural sea sponge in your house, that’s what you’re cleaning your kitchen counters with, the skeleton of a sea sponge. Different sponges use different minerals to create their skeletons and most are pretty hard, but the ones sold as natural sponges are softer and throughout history have been used for everything from padding armor, applying paint, and filtering water. Loofah sponges aren’t actually made from sea sponges, though. They’re actually from the dried insides of the sponge gourd. I did not actually know that until just now.

Oh, and guess what else I just learned? There’s a small population of bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia that use sponges. The dolphins frequently hunt close to the bottom of the bay. To keep from scraping its rostrum, or bill, in the sand, a dolphin will sometimes stick a sponge under its chin. Researchers think that one especially smart dolphin figured this out and has been teaching her children how to do it ever since.

So that’s the sea sponge. Useful for many things, not much of a party animal. Compared to sea sponges, comb jellies are intellectual masterminds. Even though comb jellies don’t have brains.

Instead, comb jellies have a nerve net. The nerves are concentrated around its mouth and on its tentacles. It does also contain an organ that helps the jelly sense its orientation, basically so it knows which way is up. It usually swims with its mouth pointing upward, incidentally. But while the comb jelly’s nervous system is pretty sophisticated for such a simple animal, it’s also very different from other animals’ nervous systems. Like, super different. Its nerves are constructed from different molecules and use different neurotransmitters.

Its nerve cells are so different from other animals’ that some researchers think it actually evolved separately. Specifically, neuroscientist Leonid Moroz thinks so. He thinks that the first ancestor of comb jellies split off from the sea sponges some three quarters of a billion years ago and evolved separately from all other animals.

Since comb jellies use a different set of chemicals as other animals to accomplish the same tasks, a couple of articles I read make a big deal about how evolution must therefore follow a prescribed path—that animals must have certain traits to survive. But assuming comb jellies did split off from sponges that early and did evolve separately from other animals, they were still competing against those other animals. It’s not like they had an ocean to themselves, although that would be awesome if they did, because who knows what they might have evolved into?

The controversy about whether sea sponges or comb jellies were basically the trunk of the tree of animal life started in 2008, when a study in the journal Nature compared DNA sequences across a number of animal species and suggested that the comb jellies were evolutionarily first. A 2013 paper published in Science by another team of researchers made the same conclusion based on the genome of a species of comb jelly called the sea walnut. That is such a cute name. Don’t you just want to cuddle the little sea walnut and make little hats for it?

All this ignited what some articles call a firestorm of controversy. I like to imagine researchers reading the articles and FREAKING OUT. Moroz’s studies of the comb jelly’s nervous system, and the complete genome of a different comb jelly, the sea gooseberry, appeared in Nature in 2014. Moroz now thinks that nervous systems have developed independently at least nine times in various different groups.

The controversy at this point appears to have several factions. Moroz’s group thinks comb jellies split off from sponges, and that everything else split off from comb jellies but developed separately in the neurological sense. Another group thinks comb jellies split off from sponges and everything evolved from comb jellies, and that comb jellies aren’t all that weird neurologically. Another group thinks comb jellies and sponges split off from a common ancestor of both that had a simple nervous system, which comb jellies retained but sponges lost, and that everything else evolved from comb jellies. But then there’s the other side, the ones who think sure, comb jellies split off from sponges, but so did everything else ultimately, and comb jellies are no more the base of all animal life than the man in the moon.

One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that we still don’t know enough about comb jellies. And they are really pretty.

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