Report | January 1, 2016

Sponge grounds as key marine habitats: A synthetic review of types, structure, functional roles, and conservation concerns


This chapter reviews the major known monospecific and multispecific sponge aggregations in the world’s oceans. They are shown to occur from the intertidal to abyssal depths, in tropical, temperate, and high latitudes and sometimes to create spectacular formations, such as glass sponge reefs, lithistid reef-like fields, and carnivorous sponge grounds. Sponge aggregations are recognized as singular vulnerable habitats that deserve special research attention and legal protection. However, this review reveals that there is only a poor and fragmentary understanding of the main biological, environmental, and geochemical factors that favor and maintain these systems, including the food supply, which is fundamental knowledge. There is also a particular lack of information regarding reproductive biology, growth rates, life spans, and the main factors causing mortality, all crucial drivers for understanding population and community dynamics and for developing conservation strategies. The sponge aggregations have been shown to increase the structural complexity of the habitats, attracting a larger variety of organisms and locally enhancing biodiversity. From the very few cases in which sponge biomass and sponge physiology have been reliably approached jointly, phenomenal fluxes of matter and energy have been inferred. Through their benthic-pelagic coupling, some of the densest sponge aggregations have a significant local or regional impact on major biogeochemical cycles and food webs. Physical damage and habitat destruction derived from man-driven activities along with epidemic diseases facilitated by global environmental alterations emerge as major threats to the future of the sponge aggregations.