Sponges are animals of the phylum Porifera (/pɒˈrɪfərə/; meaning "pore bearer"). They are multicellular organisms that have bodies full of pores and channels allowing water to circulate through them, consisting of jelly-like mesohyl sandwiched between two thin layers of cells. Sponges have unspecialized cells that can transform into additional types and that often migrate between the main cell layers and the mesohyl in the process. Sponges don't have nervous, digestive or circulatory systems. Instead, most rely on maintaining a constant water flow through their bodies to obtain food and oxygen and to remove wastes.


Sponges are similar to additional animals in that they're multicellular, heterotrophic, lack cell walls and produce sperm cells. Unlike additional animals, they lack true tissues and organs, and have no body symmetry. The shapes of their bodies are adapted for maximal efficiency of water flow through the central cavity, where it deposits nutrients, and leaves through a hole called the osculum. Many sponges have internal skeletons of spongin and/or spicules of calcium carbonate or silicon dioxide. All sponges are sessile aquatic animals. Although there are freshwater species, the great majority are marine (salt water) species, ranging from tidal zones to depths exceeding 8,800 m (5.5 mi).

While most of the approximately 5,000–10,000 known species feed on bacteria and additional food particles in the water, a few host photosynthesizing micro-organisms as endosymbionts and these alliances often produce more food and oxygen than they consume. A few species of sponge that live in food-poor environments have become carnivores that prey mainly on small crustaceans.

Most species use sexual reproduction, releasing sperm cells into the water to fertilise ova that in a few species are released and in others are retained by the "mother". The fertilised eggs form larvae which swim off in search of places to settle. Sponges are known for regenerating from fragments that are broken off, although this only works if the fragments include the right types of cells. A few species reproduce by budding. When conditions deteriorate, for example as temperatures drop, a large number of freshwater species and a few marine ones produce gemmules, "survival pods" of unspecialized cells that remain dormant until conditions improve and then either form completely new sponges or recolonize the skeletons of their parents.

The mesohyl functions as an endoskeleton in most sponges, and is the only skeleton in soft sponges that encrust hard surfaces such as rocks. More commonly, the mesohyl is stiffened by mineral spicules, by spongin fibres or both. Demosponges use spongin, and in a large number of species, silica spicules and in a few species, calcium carbonate exoskeletons. Demosponges constitute about ninety percent of all known sponge species, including all freshwater ones, and have the widest range of habitats. Calcareous sponges, which have calcium carbonate spicules and, in a few species, calcium carbonate exoskeletons, are restricted to relatively shallow marine waters where production of calcium carbonate is easiest. The fragile glass sponges, with "scaffolding" of silica spicules, are restricted to polar regions and the ocean depths where predators are rare. Fossils of all of these types have been found in rocks dated from million years ago. In addition Archaeocyathids, whose fossils are common in rocks from million years ago, are now regarded as a type of sponge.

The single-celled choanoflagellates resemble the choanocyte cells of sponges which are used to drive their water flow systems and capture most of their food. This along with phylogenetic studies of ribosomal molecules have been used as morphological evidence to suggest sponges are the sister group to the rest of animals. Some studies have shown that sponges don't form a monophyletic group, in additional words don't include all and only the descendants of a common ancestor. Recent phylogenetic analyses suggest that comb jellies rather than sponges are the sister group to the rest of animals.

The few species of demosponge that have entirely soft fibrous skeletons with no hard elements have been used by humans over thousands of years for several purposes, including as padding and as cleaning tools. By the 1950s, though, these had been overfished so heavily that the industry almost collapsed, and most sponge-like materials are now synthetic. Sponges and their microscopic endosymbionts are now being researched as possible sources of medicines for treating a wide range of diseases. Dolphins have been observed using sponges as tools while foraging.

Distinguishing features

Sponges constitute the phylum Porifera, and have been defined as sessile metazoans (multicelled immobile animals) that have water intake and outlet openings connected by chambers lined with choanocytes, cells with whip-like flagella. Notwithstanding a few carnivorous sponges have lost these water flow systems and the choanocytes. All known living sponges can remould their bodies, as most types of their cells can move within their bodies and a few can change from one type to another.

Like cnidarians (jellyfish, etc.) and ctenophores (comb jellies), and unlike all additional known metazoans, sponges' bodies consist of a non-living jelly-like mass sandwiched between two main layers of cells. Cnidarians and ctenophores have simple nervous systems, and their cell layers are bound by internal connexions and by being mounted on a basement membrane (thin fibrous mat, additionally known as "basal lamina"). Sponges have no nervous systems, their middle jelly-like layers have large and varied populations of cells, and a few types of cells in their outer layers might move into the middle layer and change their functions.

 SpongesCnidarians and ctenophores
Nervous systemNoYes, simple
Cells in each layer bound togetherNo, except that Homoscleromorpha have basement membranes.Yes: inter-cell connections; basement membranes
Number of cells in middle "jelly" layerManyFew
Cells in outer layers can move inwards and change functionsYesNo

Basic structure

Cell types

    Water flow
Main cell types of Porifera

A sponge's body is hollow and is held in shape by the mesohyl, a jelly-like substance made mainly of collagen and reinforced by a dense network of fibres additionally made of collagen. The inner surface is covered with choanocytes, cells with cylindrical or conical collars surrounding one flagellum per choanocyte. The wave-like motion of the whip-like flagella drives water through the sponge's body. All sponges have ostia, channels leading to the interior through the mesohyl, and in most sponges these are controlled by tube-like porocytes that form closable inlet valves. Pinacocytes, plate-like cells, form a single-layered external skin over all additional parts of the mesohyl that aren't covered by choanocytes, and the pinacocytes additionally digest food particles that are too large to enter the ostia, while those at the base of the animal are responsible for anchoring it.

Other types of cell live and move within the mesohyl:

  • Lophocytes are amoeba-like cells that move slowly through the mesohyl and secrete collagen fibres.
  • Collencytes are another type of collagen-producing cell.
  • Rhabdiferous cells secrete polysaccharides that additionally form part of the mesohyl.
  • Oocytes and spermatocytes are reproductive cells.
  • Sclerocytes secrete the mineralized spicules ("little spines") that form the skeletons of a large number of sponges and in a few species provide a few defence against predators.
  • In addition to or instead of sclerocytes, demosponges have spongocytes that secrete a form of collagen that polymerizes into spongin, a thick fibrous material that stiffens the mesohyl.
  • Myocytes ("muscle cells") conduct signals and cause parts of the animal to contract.
  • "Grey cells" act as sponges' equivalent of an immune system.
  • Archaeocytes (or amoebocytes) are amoeba-like cells that are totipotent, in additional words each is capable of transformation into any additional type of cell. They additionally have important roles in feeding and in clearing debris that block the ostia.

Glass sponges' syncytia

    Water flow
    Main syncitium
    and collar bodies
    showing interior

Glass sponges present a distinctive variation on this basic plan. Their spicules, which are made of silica, form a scaffolding-like framework between whose rods the living tissue is suspended like a cobweb that contains most of the cell types. This tissue is a syncytium that in a few ways behaves like a large number of cells that share a single external membrane, and in others like a single cell with multiple nuclei. The mesohyl is absent or minimal. The syncytium's cytoplasm, the soupy fluid that fills the interiors of cells, is organised into "rivers" that transport nuclei, organelles ("organs" within cells) and additional substances. Instead of choanocytes, they have further syncytia, known as choanosyncytia, which form bell-shaped chambers where water enters via perforations. The insides of these chambers are lined with "collar bodies", each consisting of a collar and flagellum but without a nucleus of its own. The motion of the flagella sucks water through passages in the "cobweb" and expels it via the open ends of the bell-shaped chambers.

Some types of cells have a single nucleus and membrane each, but are connected to additional single-nucleus cells and to the main syncytium by "bridges" made of cytoplasm. The sclerocytes that build spicules have multiple nuclei, and in glass sponge larvae they're connected to additional tissues by cytoplasm bridges; such connexions between sclerocytes haven't so far been found in adults, but this might simply reflect the difficulty of investigating such small-scale features. The bridges are controlled by "plugged junctions" that apparently permit a few substances to pass while blocking others.

Water flow and body structures

    Water flow
Porifera body structures

Most sponges work rather like chimneys: they take in water at the bottom and eject it from the osculum ("little mouth") at the top. Since ambient currents are faster at the top, the suction effect that they produce by Bernoulli's principle does a few of the work for free. Sponges can control the water flow by various combinations of wholly or partially closing the osculum and ostia (the intake pores) and varying the beat of the flagella, and might shut it down if there's a lot of sand or silt in the water.

Although the layers of pinacocytes and choanocytes resemble the epithelia of more complex animals, they aren't bound tightly by cell-to-cell connexions or a basal lamina (thin fibrous sheet underneath). The flexibility of these layers and re-modeling of the mesohyl by lophocytes allow the animals to adjust their shapes throughout their lives to take maximum advantage of local water currents.

The simplest body structure in sponges is a tube or vase shape known as "asconoid", but this severely limits the size of the animal. The body structure is characterised by a stalk-like spongocoel surrounded by a single layer of choanocytes. If it is simply scaled up, the ratio of its volume to surface area increases, because surface increases as the square of length or width while volume increases proportionally to the cube. The amount of tissue that needs food and oxygen is determined by the volume, but the pumping capacity that supplies food and oxygen depends on the area covered by choanocytes. Asconoid sponges seldom exceed 1 mm (0.039 in) in diameter.

Diagram of a syconoid sponge.

Some sponges overcome this limitation by adopting the "syconoid" structure, in which the body wall is pleated. The inner pockets of the pleats are lined with choanocytes, which connect to the outer pockets of the pleats by ostia. This increase in the number of choanocytes and hence in pumping capacity enables syconoid sponges to grow up to a few centimetres in diameter.

The "leuconoid" pattern boosts pumping capacity further by filling the interior almost completely with mesohyl that contains a network of chambers lined with choanocytes and connected to each additional and to the water intakes and outlet by tubes. Leuconid sponges grow to over 1 m (3.3 ft) in diameter, and the fact that growth in any direction increases the number of choanocyte chambers enables them to take a wider range of forms, for example "encrusting" sponges whose shapes follow those of the surfaces to which they attach. All freshwater and most shallow-water marine sponges have leuconid bodies. The networks of water passages in glass sponges are similar to the leuconid structure. In all three types of structure the cross-section area of the choanocyte-lined regions is much greater than that of the intake and outlet channels. This makes the flow slower near the choanocytes and thus makes it easier for them to trap food particles. For example, in Leuconia, a small leuconoid sponge about 10 centimetres (3.9 in) tall and 1 centimetre (0.39 in) in diameter, water enters each of more than 80,000 intake canals at 6 cm per minute. Notwithstanding because Leuconia has more than 2 million flagellated chambers whose combined diameter is much greater than that of the canals, water flow through chambers slows to 3.6 cm per hour, making it easy for choanocytes to capture food. All the water is expelled through a single osculum at about 8.5 cm per second, fast enough to carry waste products a few distance away.

    Archeocytes and additional cells in
    Seabed / rock
    Water flow
Sponge with calcium carbonate skeleton


In zoology a skeleton is any fairly rigid structure of an animal, irrespective of whether it has joints and irrespective of whether it is biomineralized. The mesohyl functions as an endoskeleton in most sponges, and is the only skeleton in soft sponges that encrust hard surfaces such as rocks. More commonly the mesohyl is stiffened by mineral spicules, by spongin fibres or both. Spicules might be made of silica or calcium carbonate, and vary in shape from simple rods to three-dimensional "stars" with up to six rays. Spicules are produced by sclerocyte cells, and might be separate, connected by joints, or fused.

Some sponges additionally secrete exoskeletons that lie completely outside their organic components. For example, sclerosponges ("hard sponges") have massive calcium carbonate exoskeletons over which the organic matter forms a thin layer with choanocyte chambers in pits in the mineral. These exoskeletons are secreted by the pinacocytes that form the animals' skins.


Sponges were traditionally distributed in three classes: calcareous sponges (Calcarea), glass sponges (Hexactinellida) and demosponges (Demospongiae). Notwithstanding studies have shown that the Homoscleromorpha, a group thought to belong to the Demospongiae, is actually phylogenetically well separated. Therefore, they have recently been recognised as the fourth class of sponges.

Sponges are divided into classes mainly according to the composition of their skeletons:

 Type of cellsSpiculesSpongin fibersMassive exoskeletonBody form
CalcareaSingle nucleus, single external membraneCalcite
May be individual or large masses
Made of calcite if present.
Asconoid, syconoid, leuconoid or solenoid
HexactinellidaMostly syncytia in all speciesSilica
May be individual or fused
DemospongiaeSingle nucleus, single external membraneSilicaIn a large number of speciesIn a few species.
Made of aragonite if present.
HomoscleromorphaSingle nucleus, single external membraneSilicaIn a large number of speciesNeverSylleibid or leuconoid

Vital functions

Spongia officinalis, "the kitchen sponge", is dark grey when alive


Although adult sponges are fundamentally sessile animals, a few marine and freshwater species can move across the sea bed at speeds of 1–4 mm (0.039–0.157 in) per day, as a result of amoeba-like movements of pinacocytes and additional cells. A few species can contract their whole bodies, and a large number of can close their oscula and ostia. Juveniles drift or swim freely, while adults are stationary.

Respiration, feeding and excretion

Sponges don't have distinct circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and excretory systems – instead the water flow system supports all these functions. They filter food particles out of the water flowing through them. Particles larger than 50 micrometers can't enter the ostia and pinacocytes consume them by phagocytosis (engulfing and internal digestion). Particles from 0.5 μm to 50 μm are trapped in the ostia, which taper from the outer to inner ends. These particles are consumed by pinacocytes or by archaeocytes which partially extrude themselves through the walls of the ostia. Bacteria-sized particles, below 0.5 micrometers, pass through the ostia and are caught and consumed by choanocytes. Since the smallest particles are by far the most common, choanocytes typically capture eighty percent of a sponge's food supply. Archaeocytes transport food packaged in vesicles from cells that directly digest food to those that do not. At least one species of sponge has internal fibres that function as tracks for use by nutrient-carrying archaeocytes, and these tracks additionally move inert objects.

Euplectella aspergillum, a glass sponge known as "Venus' Flower Basket"

It used to be claimed that glass sponges could live on nutrients dissolved in sea water and were quite averse to silt. However a study in 2007 found no evidence of this and concluded that they extract bacteria and additional micro-organisms from water quite efficiently (about 79%) and process suspended sediment grains to extract such prey. Collar bodies digest food and distribute it wrapped in vesicles that are transported by dynein "motor" molecules along bundles of microtubules that run throughout the syncytium.

Sponges' cells absorb oxygen by diffusion from water into cells as water flows through body, into which carbon dioxide and additional soluble waste products such as ammonia additionally diffuse. Archeocytes remove mineral particles that threaten to block the ostia, transport them through the mesohyl and generally dump them into the outgoing water current, although a few species incorporate them into their skeletons.

Carnivorous sponges

A few species that live in waters where the supply of food particles is quite poor prey on crustaceans and additional small animals. So far only 137 species have been discovered. Most belong to the family Cladorhizidae, but a few members of the Guitarridae and Esperiopsidae are additionally carnivores. In most cases little is known about how they actually capture prey, although a few species are thought to use either sticky threads or hooked spicules. Most carnivorous sponges live in deep waters, up to 8,840 m (5.49 mi), and the development of deep-ocean exploration techniques is expected to lead to the discovery of several more. However one species has been found in Mediterranean caves at depths of 17–23 m (56–75 ft), alongside the more usual filter feeding sponges. The cave-dwelling predators capture crustaceans under 1 mm (0.039 in) long by entangling them with fine threads, digest them by enveloping them with further threads over the course of a few days, and then return to their normal shape; there's no evidence that they use venom.

Most known carnivorous sponges have completely lost the water flow system and choanocytes. However the genus Chondrocladia uses a highly modified water flow system to inflate balloon-like structures that are used for capturing prey.


Freshwater sponges often host green algae as endosymbionts within archaeocytes and additional cells, and benefit from nutrients produced by the algae. Many marine species host additional photosynthesizing organisms, most commonly cyanobacteria but in a few cases dinoflagellates. Symbiotic cyanobacteria might form a third of the total mass of living tissue in a few sponges, and a few sponges gain 48 percent to eighty percent of their energy supply from these micro-organisms. In 2008 a University of Stuttgart team reported that spicules made of silica conduct light into the mesohyl, where the photosynthesizing endosymbionts live. Sponges that host photosynthesizing organisms are most common in waters with relatively poor supplies of food particles, and often have leafy shapes that maximise the amount of sunlight they collect.

A recently discovered carnivorous sponge that lives near hydrothermal vents hosts methane-eating bacteria, and digests a few of them.

"Immune" system

Sponges don't have the complex immune systems of most additional animals. However they reject grafts from additional species but accept them from additional members of their own species. In a few marine species, grey cells play the leading role in rejection of foreign material. When invaded, they produce a chemical that stops movement of additional cells in the affected area, thus preventing the intruder from using the sponge's internal transport systems. If the intrusion persists, the grey cells concentrate in the area and release toxins that kill all cells in the area. The "immune" system can stay in this activated state for up to three weeks.



The freshwater sponge Spongilla lacustris

Sponges have three asexual methods of reproduction: after fragmentation; by budding; and by producing gemmules. Fragments of sponges might be detached by currents or waves. They use the mobility of their pinacocytes and choanocytes and reshaping of the mesohyl to re-attach themselves to a suitable surface and then rebuild themselves as small but functional sponges over the course of several days. The same capabilities enable sponges that have been squeezed through a fine cloth to regenerate. A sponge fragment can only regenerate if it contains both collencytes to produce mesohyl and archeocytes to produce all the additional cell types. A quite few species reproduce by budding.

Gemmules are "survival pods" which a few marine sponges and a large number of freshwater species produce by the thousands when dying and which some, mainly freshwater species, regularly produce in autumn. Spongocytes make gemmules by wrapping shells of spongin, often reinforced with spicules, round clusters of archeocytes that are full of nutrients. Freshwater gemmules might additionally include phytosynthesizing symbionts. The gemmules then become dormant, and in this state can survive cold, drying out, lack of oxygen and extreme variations in salinity. Freshwater gemmules often don't revive until the temperature drops, stays cold for a few months and then reaches a near-"normal" level. When a gemmule germinates, the archeocytes round the outside of the cluster transform into pinacocytes, a membrane over a pore in the shell bursts, the cluster of cells slowly emerges, and most of the remaining archeocytes transform into additional cell types needed to make a functioning sponge. Gemmules from the same species but different individuals can join forces to form one sponge. Some gemmules are retained within the parent sponge, and in spring it can be difficult to tell whether an old sponge has revived or been "recolonized" by its own gemmules.


Most sponges are hermaphrodites (function as both sexes simultaneously), although sponges have no gonads (reproductive organs). Sperm are produced by choanocytes or entire choanocyte chambers that sink into the mesohyl and form spermatic cysts while eggs are formed by transformation of archeocytes, or of choanocytes in a few species. Each egg generally acquires a yolk by consuming "nurse cells". During spawning, sperm burst out of their cysts and are expelled via the osculum. If they contact another sponge of the same species, the water flow carries them to choanocytes that engulf them but, instead of digesting them, metamorphose to an ameboid form and carry the sperm through the mesohyl to eggs, which in most cases engulf the carrier and its cargo.

A few species release fertilised eggs into the water, but most retain the eggs until they hatch. There are four types of larvae, but all are balls of cells with an outer layer of cells whose flagellae or cilia enable the larvae to move. After swimming for a few days the larvae sink and crawl until they find a place to settle. Most of the cells transform into archeocytes and then into the types appropriate for their locations in a miniature adult sponge.

Glass sponge embryos start by dividing into separate cells, but once 32 cells have formed they rapidly transform into larvae that externally are ovoid with a band of cilia round the middle that they use for movement, but internally have the typical glass sponge structure of spicules with a cobweb-like main syncitium draped around and between them and choanosyncytia with multiple collar bodies in the center. The larvae then leave their parents' bodies.

Life cycle

Sponges in temperate regions live for at most a few years, but a few tropical species and perhaps a few deep-ocean ones might live for 200 years or more. Some calcified demosponges grow by only 0.2 mm (0.0079 in) per year and, if that rate is constant, specimens 1 m (3.3 ft) wide must be about 5,000 years old. Some sponges start sexual reproduction when only a few weeks old, while others wait until they're several years old.

Coordination of activities

Adult sponges lack neurons or any additional kind of nervous tissue. However most species have the ability to perform movements that are coordinated all over their bodies, mainly contractions of the pinacocytes, squeezing the water channels and thus expelling excess sediment and additional substances that might cause blockages. Some species can contract the osculum independently of the rest of the body. Sponges might additionally contract in order to reduce the area that's vulnerable to attack by predators. In cases where two sponges are fused, for example if there's a large but still unseparated bud, these contraction waves slowly become coordinated in both of the "Siamese twins". The coordinating mechanism is unknown, but might involve chemicals similar to neurotransmitters. However glass sponges rapidly transmit electrical impulses through all parts of the syncytium, and use this to halt the motion of their flagella if the incoming water contains toxins or excessive sediment. Myocytes are thought to be responsible for closing the osculum and for transmitting signals between different parts of the body.

Sponges contain genes quite similar to those that contain the "recipe" for the post-synaptic density, an important signal-receiving structure in the neurons of all additional animals. Notwithstanding in sponges these genes are only activated in "flask cells" that appear only in larvae and might provide a few sensory capability while the larvae are swimming. This raises questions about whether flask cells represent the predecessors of true neurons or are evidence that sponges' ancestors had true neurons but lost them as they adapted to a sessile lifestyle.


Euplectella aspergillum is a deep ocean glass sponge; seen here at a depth of 2,572 metres (8,438 ft) off the coast of California.


Sponges are worldwide in their distribution, living in a wide range of ocean habitats, from the polar regions to the tropics. Most live in quiet, clear waters, because sediment stirred up by waves or currents would block their pores, making it difficult for them to feed and breathe. The greatest numbers of sponges are usually found on firm surfaces such as rocks, but a few sponges can attach themselves to soft sediment by means of a root-like base.

Sponges are more abundant but less diverse in temperate waters than in tropical waters, possibly because organisms that prey on sponges are more abundant in tropical waters. Glass sponges are the most common in polar waters and in the depths of temperate and tropical seas, as their quite porous construction enables them to extract food from these resource-poor waters with the minimum of effort. Demosponges and calcareous sponges are abundant and diverse in shallower non-polar waters.

The different classes of sponge live in different ranges of habitat:

 Water typeDepthType of surface
CalcareaMarineless than 100 m (330 ft)Hard
Glass spongesMarineDeepSoft or firm sediment
DemospongesMarine, brackish; and about 150 freshwater speciesInter-tidal to abyssal; a carnivorous demosponge has been found at 8,840 m (5.49 mi)Any

As primary producers

Sponges with photosynthesizing endosymbionts produce up to three times more oxygen than they consume, as well as more organic matter than they consume. Such contributions to their habitats' resources are significant along Australia's Great Barrier Reef but relatively minor in the Caribbean.


Holes made by clionaid sponge (producing the trace Entobia) after the death of a modern bivalve shell of species Mercenaria mercenaria, from North Carolina
Close-up of the sponge boring Entobia in a modern oyster valve. Note the chambers which are connected by short tunnels.

Many sponges shed Sponge spicules, forming a dense carpet several metres deep that keeps away echinoderms which would otherwise prey on the sponges. They additionally produce toxins that prevent additional sessile organisms such as bryozoans or sea squirts from growing on or near them, making sponges quite effective competitors for living space. One of a large number of examples includes ageliferin.

A few species, the Caribbean fire sponge Tedania ignis, cause a severe rash in humans who handle them. Turtles and a few fish feed mainly on sponges. It is often said that sponges produce chemical defences against such predators. However an experiment showed that there's no relationship between the toxicity of chemicals produced by sponges and how they taste to fish, which would diminish the usefulness of chemical defences as deterrents. Predation by fish might even help to spread sponges by detaching fragments.

Glass sponges produce no toxic chemicals, and live in quite deep water where predators are rare.


Sponge flies, additionally known as spongilla-flies (Neuroptera, Sisyridae), are specialist predators of freshwater sponges. The female lays her eggs on vegetation overhanging water. The larvae hatch and drop into the water where they seek out sponges to feed on. They use their elongated mouthparts to pierce the sponge and suck the fluids within. The larvae of a few species cling to the surface of the sponge while others take refuge in the sponge's internal cavities. The fully grown larvae leave the water and spin a cocoon in which to pupate.


The Caribbean chicken-liver sponge Chondrilla nucula secretes toxins that kill coral polyps, allowing the sponges to grow over the coral skeletons. Others, especially in the family Clionaidae, use corrosive substances secreted by their archeocytes to tunnel into rocks, corals and the shells of dead mollusks. Sponges might remove up to 1 m (3.3 ft) per year from reefs, creating visible notches just below low-tide level.


Caribbean sponges of the genus Aplysina suffer from Aplysina red band syndrome. This causes Aplysina to develop one or more rust-colored bands, at times with adjacent bands of necrotic tissue. These lesions might completely encircle branches of the sponge. The disease appears to be contagious and impacts approximately 10 percent of A. cauliformis on Bahamian reefs. The rust-colored bands are caused by a cyanobacterium, but it is unknown whether this organism actually causes the disease.

Collaboration with additional organisms

In addition to hosting photosynthesizing endosymbionts, sponges are noted for their wide range of collaborations with additional organisms. The relatively large encrusting sponge Lissodendoryx colombiensis is most common on rocky surfaces, but has extended its range into seagrass meadows by letting itself be surrounded or overgrown by seagrass sponges, which are distasteful to the local starfish and therefore protect Lissodendoryx against them; in return the seagrass sponges get higher positions away from the sea-floor sediment.

Shrimps of the genus Synalpheus form colonies in sponges, and each shrimp species inhabits a different sponge species, making Synalpheus one of the most diverse crustacean genera. Specifically, Synalpheus regalis utilises the sponge not only as a food source, but additionally as a defence against additional shrimp and predators. As a large number of as 16,000 individuals inhabit a single loggerhead sponge, feeding off the larger particles that collect on the sponge as it philtres the ocean to feed itself.

Evolutionary history

Fossil record

Raphidonema faringdonense, a fossil sponge from the Cretaceous of England.
1: Gap  2: Central cavity  3 Internal wall  4: Pore (all walls have pores)  5 Septum  6 Outer wall  7 Holdfast
Archaeocyathid structure

24-isopropylcholestane is a stable derivative of 24-isopropylcholesterol, which is said to be produced by demosponges but not by eumetazoans ("true animals", i.e. cnidarians and bilaterians). Since choanoflagellates are thought to be animals' closest single-celled relatives, a team of scientists examined the biochemistry and genes of one choanoflagellate species. They concluded that this species couldn't produce 24-isopropylcholesterol but that investigation of a wider range of choanoflagellates would be necessary in order to prove that the fossil 24-isopropylcholestane could only have been produced by demosponges. Although a previous publication reported traces of the chemical 24-isopropylcholestane in ancient rocks dating to million years ago, recent research using a much more accurately dated rock series has revealed that these biomarkers only appear before the end of the Marinoan glaciation approximately million years ago, and that "Biomarker analysis has yet to reveal any convincing evidence for ancient sponges pre-dating the first globally extensive Neoproterozoic glacial episode (the Sturtian, ~ million years ago in Oman)". Nevertheless, this 'sponge biomarker' could have additional sources – such as marine algae — so might not constrain the origin of Porifera.

Although molecular clocks and biomarkers suggest sponges existed well before the Cambrian explosion of life, silica spicules like those of demosponges are absent from the fossil record until the Cambrian, although one unsubstantiated report exists of spicules in rocks dated around million years ago, although this appears unlikely based on the above reference. Well-preserved fossil sponges from about million years ago in the Ediacaran period have been found in the Doushantuo Formation. These fossils, which include spicules, pinacocytes, porocytes, archeocytes, sclerocytes and the internal cavity, have been classified as demosponges. Fossils of glass sponges have been found from around million years ago in rocks in Australia, China and Mongolia. Early Cambrian sponges from Mexico belonging to the genus Kiwetinokia show evidence of fusion of several smaller spicules to form a single large spicule. Calcium carbonate spicules of calcareous sponges have been found in Early Cambrian rocks from about million years ago in Australia. Other probable demosponges have been found in the Early Cambrian Chengjiang fauna, from million years ago. Freshwater sponges appear to be much younger, as the earliest known fossils date from the Mid-Eocene period about million years ago. Although about ninety percent of modern sponges are demosponges, fossilised remains of this type are less common than those of additional types because their skeletons are composed of relatively soft spongin that doesn't fossilise well. Earliest sponge symbionts are known from the early Silurian.

Archaeocyathids, which a few classify as a type of coralline sponge, are common in the Cambrian period from about million years ago, but apparently died out by the end of the Cambrian million years ago.

Family tree

A choanoflagellate
Simplified family tree showing calcareous sponges
as closest to more complex animals
Simplified family tree showing Homoscleromorpha
as closest to more complex animals

In the 1990s sponges were widely regarded as a monophyletic group, all of them having descended from a common ancestor that was itself a sponge, and as the "sister-group" to all additional metazoans (multi-celled animals), which themselves form a monophyletic group. On the additional hand, a few 1990s analyses additionally revived the idea that animals' nearest evolutionary relatives are choanoflagellates, single-celled organisms quite similar to sponges' choanocytes – which would imply that most Metazoa evolved from quite sponge-like ancestors and therefore that sponges might not be monophyletic, as the same sponge-like ancestors might have given rise both to modern sponges and to non-sponge members of Metazoa.

Analyses after 2001 have concluded that Eumetazoa (more complex than sponges) are more closely related to particular groups of sponges than to the rest of the sponges. Such conclusions imply that sponges aren't monophyletic, because the last common ancestor of all sponges would additionally be a direct ancestor of the Eumetazoa, which aren't sponges. A study in 2001 based on comparisons of ribosome DNA concluded that the most fundamental division within sponges was between glass sponges and the rest, and that Eumetazoa are more closely related to calcareous sponges, those with calcium carbonate spicules, than to additional types of sponge. In 2007 one analysis based on comparisons of RNA and another based mainly on comparison of spicules concluded that demosponges and glass sponges are more closely related to each additional than either is to calcareous sponges, which in turn are more closely related to Eumetazoa.

Other anatomical and biochemical evidence links the Eumetazoa with Homoscleromorpha, a sub-group of demosponges. A comparison in 2007 of nuclear DNA, excluding glass sponges and comb jellies, concluded that: Homoscleromorpha are most closely related to Eumetazoa; calcareous sponges are the next closest; the additional demosponges are evolutionary "aunts" of these groups; and the chancelloriids, bag-like animals whose fossils are found in Cambrian rocks, might be sponges. The sperm of Homoscleromorpha share with those of Eumetazoa features that those of additional sponges lack. In both Homoscleromorpha and Eumetazoa layers of cells are bound together by attachment to a carpet-like basal membrane composed mainly of "type IV" collagen, a form of collagen not found in additional sponges – although the spongin fibres that reinforce the mesohyl of all demosponges is similar to "type IV" collagen.

The analyses described above concluded that sponges are closest to the ancestors of all Metazoa, of all multi-celled animals including both sponges and more complex groups. Notwithstanding another comparison in 2008 of 150 genes in each of 21 genera, ranging from fungi to humans but including only two species of sponge, suggested that comb jellies (ctenophora) are the most basal lineage of the Metazoa included in the sample. If this is correct, either modern comb jellies developed their complex structures independently of additional Metazoa, or sponges' ancestors were more complex and all known sponges are drastically simplified forms. The study recommended further analyses using a wider range of sponges and additional simple Metazoa such as Placozoa. The results of such an analysis, published in 2009, suggest that a return to the previous view might be warranted. 'Family trees' constructed using a combination of all available data – morphological, developmental and molecular – concluded that the sponges are in fact a monophyletic group, and with the cnidarians form the sister group to the bilaterians.

Archaeocyathids are quite common fossils in rocks from the Early Cambrian about million years ago but aren't found after the Late Cambrian. It has been suggested that they were produced by: sponges; cnidarians; algae; foraminiferans; a completely separate phylum of animals, Archaeocyatha; or even a completely separate kingdom of life, labelled Archaeata or Inferibionta. Since the 1990s archaeocyathids have been regarded as a distinctive group of sponges.

= skin
= flesh
Halkieriid sclerite structure

It is difficult to fit chancelloriids into classifications of sponges or more complex animals. An analysis in 1996 concluded that they were closely related to sponges on the grounds that the detailed structure of chancellorid sclerites ("armor plates") is similar to that of fibres of spongin, a collagen protein, in modern keratose (horny) demosponges such as Darwinella. However another analysis in 2002 concluded that chancelloriids aren't sponges and might be intermediate between sponges and more complex animals, among additional reasons because their skins were thicker and more tightly connected than those of sponges. In 2008 a detailed analysis of chancelloriids' sclerites concluded that they were quite similar to those of halkieriids, mobile bilaterian animals that looked like slugs in chain mail and whose fossils are found in rocks from the quite Early Cambrian to the Mid Cambrian. If this is correct, it would create a dilemma, as it is extremely unlikely that totally unrelated organisms could have developed such similar sclerites independently, but the huge difference in the structures of their bodies makes it hard to see how they can be closely related.


Linnaeus, who classified most kinds of sessile animals as belonging to the order Zoophyta in the class Vermes, mistakenly identified the genus Spongia as plants in the order Algae. For a long time thereafter sponges were assigned to a separate subkingdom, Parazoa ("beside the animals"), separate from the Eumetazoa which formed the rest of the kingdom Animalia. They are now classified as a paraphyletic phylum, from which the higher animals have evolved.

The phylum Porifera is further divided into classes mainly according to the composition of their skeletons:

  • Hexactinellida (glass sponges) have silicate spicules, the largest of which have six rays and might be individual or fused. The main components of their bodies are syncytia in which large numbers of cell share a single external membrane.
  • Calcarea have skeletons made of calcite, a form of calcium carbonate, which might form separate spicules or large masses. All the cells have a single nucleus and membrane.
  • Most Demospongiae have silicate spicules or spongin fibres or both within their soft tissues. However a few additionally have massive external skeletons made of aragonite, another form of calcium carbonate. All the cells have a single nucleus and membrane.
  • Archeocyatha are known only as fossils from the Cambrian period.

In the 1970s, sponges with massive calcium carbonate skeletons were assigned to a separate class, Sclerospongiae, otherwise known as "coralline sponges". Notwithstanding in the 1980s it was found that these were all members of either the Calcarea or the Demospongiae.

So far scientific publications have identified about 9,000 poriferan species, of which: about 400 are glass sponges; about 500 are calcareous species; and the rest are demosponges. However a few types of habitat, vertical rock and cave walls and galleries in rock and coral boulders, have been investigated quite little, even in shallow seas.


By dolphins

A report in 1997 described use of sponges as a tool by bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay in Western Australia. A dolphin will attach a marine sponge to its rostrum, which is presumably then used to protect it when searching for food in the sandy sea bottom. The behavior, known as sponging, has only been observed in this bay, and is almost exclusively shown by females. A study in 2005 concluded that mothers teach the behaviour to their daughters, and that all the sponge-users are closely related, suggesting that it is a fairly recent innovation.

By humans

Natural sponges in Tarpon Springs, Florida
Display of natural sponges for sale on Kalymnos in Greece


The calcium carbonate or silica spicules of most sponge genera make them too rough for most uses, but two genera, Hippospongia and Spongia, have soft, entirely fibrous skeletons. Early Europeans used soft sponges for a large number of purposes, including padding for helmets, portable drinking utensils and municipal water filters. Until the invention of synthetic sponges, they were used as cleaning tools, applicators for paints and ceramic glazes and discreet contraceptives. Notwithstanding by the mid-20th century, over-fishing brought both the animals and the industry close to extinction. See additionally sponge diving.

Many objects with sponge-like textures are now made of substances not derived from poriferans. Synthetic sponges include personal and household cleaning tools, breast implants, and contraceptive sponges. Typical materials used are cellulose foam, polyurethane foam, and less frequently, silicone foam.

The luffa "sponge", additionally spelled loofah, which is commonly sold for use in the kitchen or the shower, isn't derived from an animal but mainly from the fibrous "skeleton" of the sponge gourd (Luffa aegyptiaca, Cucurbitaceae).

Antibiotic compounds

Sponges have medicinal potential due to the presence in sponges themselves or their microbial symbionts of chemicals that might be used to control viruses, bacteria, tumors and fungi.

Other biologically active compounds

Halichondria produces the eribulin precursor halichondrin B

Lacking any protective shell or means of escape, sponges have evolved to synthesise a variety of unusual compounds. One such class is the oxidised fatty acid derivatives called oxylipins. Members of this family have been found to have anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. One example isolated from the Okinawan plakortis sponges, plakoridine A, has shown potential as a cytotoxin to murine lymphoma cells.