Sponges are a diverse group of sometimes common types, with about 5000 species known across the world. Sponges are primarily marine, but around 150 species live in fresh water. Sponges have cellular-level organization, meaning that that their cells are specialized so that different cells perform different functions, but similar cells are not organized into tissues and bodies are a sort of loose aggregation of different kinds of cells. This is the simplest kind of cellular organization found among parazoans.

Other characteristics of sponges include a system of pores (also called ostia) and canals, through which water passes. Water movement is driven by the beating of flagellae, which are located on specialized cells called choanocytes (collar cells). Sponges are either radially symmetrical or asymmetrical. They are supported by a skeleton made up of the protein collagen and spicules, which may be calcareous or siliceous, depending on the group of sponges examined. Skeletal elements, choanocytes, and other cells are imbedded in a gelatinous matrix called mesohyl or mesoglea. Sponges capture food (detritus particles, plankton, bacteria) that is brought close by water currents created by the choanocytes. Food items are taken into individual cells by phagocytosis, and digestion occurs within individual cells.

Reproduction by sponges is by both sexual and asexual means. Asexual reproduction is by means of external buds. Some species also form internal buds, called gemmules, which can survive extremely unfavorable conditions that cause the rest of the sponge to die. Sexual reproduction takes place in the mesohyl. Male gametes are released into the water by a sponge and taken into the pore systems of its neighbors in the same way as food items. Spermatozoa are "captured" by collar cells, which then lose their collars and transform into specialized, amoeba-like cells that carry the spermatozoa to the eggs. Some sponges are monoecious; others are dioecious. In most sponges for which developmental patterns are known, the fertilized egg develops into a blastula, which is released into the water (in some species, release takes place right after fertilization; in others, it is delayed and some development takes place within the parent). The larvae may settle directly and transform into adult sponges, or they may be planktonic for a time. Adult sponges are generally assumed to be completely sessile, but a few studies have shown that adult sponges in a variety of species can crawl slowly (Bond and Harris 1988).

Sponges have three different types of body plans, although these morphologies do not define taxonomic groups. Asconoid sponges are shaped like a simple tube perforated by pores. The open internal part of the tube is called the spongocoel; it contains the collar cells. There is a single opening to the outside, the osculum. Syconoid sponges tend to be larger than asconoids and have a tubular body with a single osculum. The synconoid body wall is thicker and the pores that penetrate it are longer, forming a system of simple canals. These canals are lined by collar cells, the flagellae of which move water from the outside, into the spongocoel and out the osculum. The third category of body organization is leuconoid. These are the largest and most complex sponges. These sponges are made up of masses of tissue penetrated by numerous canals. Canals lead to numerous small chambers lined with flagellated cells. Water moves through the canals, into these chambers, and out via a central canal and osculum. Sponges in the class Calcarea, considered to be the most primative group, and have asconoid, synconoid and leuconoid members. The Hexactinellida and Demospongiae groups have only leuconoid forms.

Sponges are found in virtually all aquatic habitats, although they are most common and diverse in the marine environment. Many species contain toxic substances, probably to discourage predators. Certain other marine animals take advantage of this characteristic of sponges by placing adult sponges on their bodies, where the sponges attach and grow. The chemicals also probably play a role in competition among sponges and other organisms, as they are released by sponges to insure themselves space in the marine ecosystem. Some of these chemicals have been found to have beneficial pharmaceutical effects for humans, including compounds with respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, anti-inflammatory, antitumor, and antibiotic activities. Sponges also provide a home for a number of small marine plants, which live in and around their pore systems. Symbiotic relationships with bacteria and algae have also been reported, in which the sponge provides its symbiont with support and protection and the symbiont provides the sponge with food. Some sponges (boring sponges) excavate the surface of corals and molluscs, sometimes causing significant degradation of reefs and death of the mollusc. The corals or molluscs are not eaten; rather, the sponge is probably seeking protection for itself by sinking into the hard structures it erodes. Even this process has some beneficial effects, however, in that it is an important part of the process by which calcium is recycled.


Brusca, R. C., and G. J. Brusca. Invertebrates. 1990. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA.

Bond, C. and A. K. Harris. 1988. Locomotion of sponges and its physical mechanism. Journal of Experimental Zoology volume 246, pages 271-284.

Hickman, C.P. and L. S. Roberts. 1994. Animal Diversity. Wm. C. Brown, Dubuque, IA.

Pearse, V., J. Pearse, M. Buchsbaum, and R. Buchsbaum. 1987. Living Invertebrates. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Palo Alto, Ca.


Phil Myers (author), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.