Lush Sponge Gardens Discovered Deep in the Arctic Ocean

German polar research vessel RV Polarstern in Atka Bay, Antarctica during supply of Neumayer-Station.

Massive sponge gardens in the Arctic Ocean were found during an expedition on the Polarstern, a German research icebreaker. (Image: Hans Grobe via Wikimedia)

A significant section of marine ecology is yet to be explored and occasional findings leave scientists intrigued and stunned. Some time ago, the discovery of huge sponge gardens deep in the Arctic Ocean made headlines. The sponge garden thrives on extinct fauna. The study was carried out by a group of scientists and details of the finding can be found in the coveted journal Nature Communications. These sponges grow on the peak of underwater volcanoes. The team, composed of members from some eminent institutes, was using the RV Polarstern icebreaker research vessel.

Massive sponge gardens under Arctic ice

It is baffling to see how such massive sponge gardens can thrive in the ice-cold water as the area gets only a limited amount of light. The group of scientists from Bremen, Bremerhaven, and Kiel came across the densely populated ecosystem. Expedition leader and chief scientist Antje Boetius said: “Thriving on top of extinct volcanic seamounts of the Langseth Ridge, we found massive sponge gardens, but did not know what they were feeding on.” Boetius is also associated with the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology.

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Dense growth of sponges under the Arctic Ocean.
It is baffling to see how such massive sponge gardens can thrive in the ice-cold water, as the area only gets a limited amount of light. (Image: PS101 AWI OFOBS via Alfred-Wegener-Institut)

Teresa Morganti, a sponge expert from the same entity, says: “Our analysis revealed that the sponges have microbial symbionts that are able to use old organic matter. This allows them to feed on the remnants of former, now extinct inhabitants of the seamounts, such as the tubes of worms composed of protein and chitin and other trapped detritus.”

The collected microorganisms were analyzed and the results were in sync with the hypothesis of the researchers. GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research’s Ute Hentschel said: “The microbes have just the right toolbox for this habitat. The microbes have the genes to digest refractory particulate and dissolved organic matter and use it as a carbon and nitrogen source, as well as a number of chemical energy sources available there.”

Dozens of sponges seen under the Arctic Ocean cover Langseth Ridge’s upper peaks.
The sponges range in size from less than half an inch in diameter to nearly 20 inches. (Image: PS101 AWI OFOBS via Alfred-Wegener-Institut)

The scientists were taken aback after coming across the Langseth Ridge sponge biomass. Antje Boetius said the team was amazed after seeing the unique biotope ecosystem under permanently ice-covered water. “With sea-ice cover rapidly declining and the ocean environment changing, a better knowledge of hotspot ecosystems is essential for protecting and managing the unique diversity of these Arctic seas under pressure,” Boetius concluded. (Scitechdaily)

So far, very few scientific expeditions carried out in the Arctic region have succeeded in venturing under the depth of water beneath the ice cover. The inclement weather conditions and remoteness of the region act as a major deterrent for carrying out extensive expeditions. The team made use of an underwater camera with an advanced imaging system and the presence of a powerful icebreaker research vessel worked in their favor. The images were analyzed in the lab and they deduced the sponges were almost 300 years old. The researchers involved in this expedition think more such efforts are needed to find out more about the nuances of the arctic sea ecosystem.

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