Discovery of more than a dozen new species of sponges

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A study of sea sponges from New Zealand and Antarctica has revealed 15 species new to science.

In the latest NIWA Biodiversity Memoir, researchers examined and recorded more than 250 specimens of sponges in the family Latrunculiidae, discovering 14 new species and 1 new fossil species.

Mike Page / NIWA

Sponges are a key habitat-forming animal in New Zealand’s marine environment, providing food, shelter and a surface from which other marine species can thrive.

They are also known to possess anticancer and antiviral effects, with recently FDA-approved drugs derived from sponges reducing certain cancers.

Marine biologist Dr Carina Sim-Smith said the biodiversity dissertation provides fundamental knowledge about the state of our oceans.

“Ocean habitats are vulnerable to damage from human activities, so knowledge of sponge biodiversity is essential to understanding the function of seabed ecosystems to help improve their management. If we don’t know what species live in our waters, how can we monitor the impacts we have?”

NIWA has been compiling biodiversity memoirs since the 1950s. They give a comprehensive, definitive and illustrated description of New Zealand marine life, including animals such as sponges, corals, worms, molluscs, crustaceans and starfish.

They often take 4-5 years to complete due to the amount of detailed information they contain.

Dr Sim-Smith said it is notoriously difficult to tell the species apart due to the lack of detailed descriptions we have.

“These Memoirs are indispensable for scientists and conservationists because they provide a record of the magnificent and unique biodiversity found in our oceans, much of which is found nowhere else in the world.

“The fact that more than 5% of the specimens we sampled are new to science shows that there is still so much of our marine environment that we know nothing about. What is left to dig up, and what might be threatened or disappear without ever knowing they existed?”

Latrunculiidae sponges inhabit a wide range of environments. From the shores of New Zealand to the icy waters of Antarctica, they can be seen diving over shallow reefs as well as at depths over 2,500m.

The new NIWA Biodiversity Memoir was compiled by Carina Sim-Smith (ClearSight Consultants) and Michelle Kelly (NIWA), with co-authors Diana Macpherson (NIWA), Dorte Janussen (Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museum, Germany) and Pilar Ríos (Instituto Español de Oceanografía, Spain).

It is available for free download and hard copies can be purchased from the NIWA website: https://niwa.co.nz/coasts-and-oceans/niwa-biodiversity-memoirs

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