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USGS Researcher Participates in First Benthic Sponge Taxonomy Course at Mote Marine Laboratory

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a tagged Callyspongia plicifera sponge
Above: An underwater classroom: sponges were temporarily tagged to help students learn their scientific names. Photograph by Chantal Collier, Florida Department of Environmental Protection. [larger version]

chimney-like openings in the sponge Tedania ignis
Above: Students learned to look closely at details of sponge architecture—for example, these chimney-like openings through which the orange sponge Tedania ignis expels water. Photograph by Amanda Weinkauf, Delta-Seven, Inc. [larger version]

Chris Kellogg and Shirley Pomponi examine a deep-sea sponge
Above: Chris Kellogg (USGS) and instructor Shirley Pomponi (Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution) examine a deep-sea sponge at Mote Marine Laboratory's Tropical Research Laboratory. Photograph by Amanda Weinkauf, Delta-Seven, Inc. [larger version]

group photo of participants in Mote Marine Laboratory's first course on benthic sponge taxonomy
Above: Participants in Mote Marine Laboratory's first course on benthic sponge taxonomy. Instructors Shirley Pomponi and Andia Chaves-Fonnegra are in front row, 5th and 6th from left, respectively; author Chris Kellogg is between them in back row. Photograph by Dennis Lavrov, Iowa State University. [larger version]

I went to this course knowing one thing about marine sponges: they are bacterial apartment buildings. As a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) microbiologist who studies bacteria associated with corals, I have seen plenty of shallow-water and deep-sea sponges and have considered researching sponges' microbial biodiversity. Before beginning such a study, however, I thought it would be helpful to be able to identify and describe the sponge of interest: "the red squishy one" doesn't exactly pass muster in a journal article!

The course "Benthic Workshop: Marine Sponges" took place August 12-20, 2006, at Mote Marine Laboratory's Tropical Research Laboratory in the Florida Keys. Taking this course was a lot like experiencing immersion in a foreign language. At first, the sponges all looked alike, and their names were Greek to me (well, OK, Latin). But by the end of the week, I was able to identify more than 30 common Florida and Caribbean sponges by name just by looking at them. I also learned enough to key out an unfamiliar sponge to at least the family, if not genus, level. The well-organized and practical field and laboratory exercises made a steep learning curve possible to surmount.

The course was taught by Shirley Pomponi, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution and an internationally recognized sponge expert. Participants included representatives from Federal and Florida State government organizations, private consulting companies, and academic institutions.

The course included lectures on sponge ecology and chemical ecology (why sponges make interesting chemicals) from Colombian scientist Andia Chaves-Fonnegra. Field studies included looking at sponges in three different habitats: reef, mangrove roots, and seagrass flats/hard bottom. The key element was that Shirley and Andia temporarily labeled the sponges with waterproof tags listing their scientific names. The labels were a huge help, both for creating photographic records and for training our eyes to recognize common species. Back on land, the instructors let us examine some representative samples of deep-sea sponges that had been collected by submersible.

In addition to the field studies, there was also a laboratory component to the course. Because sponges can occur in many different shapes, it is often necessary to look at their skeletal and cellular makeup under the microscope in order to identify them correctly. In the laboratory, we learned how to prepare samples in order to see spicules (distinctive calcite or silica structures that make up sponge skeletons) or fibers that can be diagnostic of particular sponge taxa. We also practiced preparing thin sections of sponge tissue to look at the arrangement of fibers and spicules together. Other experiments included isolating bacteria from sponges and testing for bioactive compounds (antibiotic effect on Escherichia coli) in sponge extracts.

The culmination of the course was setting up a Microsoft Access database of common Florida and Caribbean sponge species, with entries based on both macroscopic features (such as shape and color) and microscopic features (such as large and small types of spicules). Because we entered information about the sponges as searchable records, we can use the database as a future resource—if we observe, say, a red branching sponge, we can enter that information and see what the choices are for that color and morphology, and then narrow our identification by looking at the spicules under the microscope. The database is a work in progress that will be added to by this and future classes of the course on benthic sponge taxonomy.

Related Web Sites
Tropical Research Laboratory in the Florida Keys
Mote Marine Laboratory
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution
non-profit marine research institution
Coral Microbial Ecology
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

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cover story:
Satellites Help Scientists Track Migratory Birds

Effects of Urbanization on Nearshore Ecosystems in Puget Sound

Studying the Elwha River in Preparation for Dam Removal

Sea-Floor Mapping Project Expands to South Shore and Cape Cod Bay

Outreach Earth Science Week Celebration in Menlo Park, CA

Google Maps View of Western Coastal and Marine Geology Projects

Meetings Community Forum on Red Tide

Benthic Sponge Taxonomy Course at Mote Marine Laboratory

Awards USGS Team Receives Service to America Medal

Staff In Memoriam: Terry Bruns, 1946-2006

Publications Release of DVD "Bedforms and Cross-Bedding in Animation"

Nov. / Dec. 2006 Publications List

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