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Sponges, Phylum Porifera, Part 1

To: Part 2, Part 3

By Bob Fenner

 Sponges are principal marine organisms

What a difference a few years makes. Look back a few, maybe a decade ago, and you'd find very few people keeping live Sponges. For those attempting this "holy grail", they either couldn't get healthy specimens or didn't know how to keep them alive. Moreover most hobbyists feared their presence and tried to eliminate them altogether.

Nowadays reefers are "kinder and gentler", not to mention much more knowledgeable regarding these early life forms. They are recognized as what they are; wondrous, filter-feeding adjuncts to modern reef keeping, both as ornamentals in their own right, and substantial components of healthy Live Rock.

There are some Sponge species to be avoided (stinging, stinking and easily dying varieties), but by and large encouraging, even propagating Sponge "material" is very much a part of the reef experience. With care in selection and husbandry you can benefit from the Sponges that do well in captive reef environments.


Sponges comprise the phylum Porifera, whose name means "bearing openings"; an allusion to their overall porosity and general mode of feeding (filtration), respiring, excreting wastes while whipping water in through openings in their body walls. Sponges are the simplest form of multicellular animals, just up from protozoans and down from cnidarians (stinging-celled like corals and anemones) in most taxonomic schemes. They don't, in fact, have tissues or organs. Their cells are somewhat unspecialized and quite independent, more like a commune or colony than a single animal.

There are about 5,000 identified marine species of sponges. There are a few ambulatory types but almost all are attached permanently to hard or soft substratums. Sponges are found worldwide, mostly in shallow waters; in all colors and shapes and sizes, from a thumbnail to a washtub. Some are cylinders, others vase-like; most are crustose and irregular (shown: a Caribbean sponge scene off of Tobago, Sponge scene in Tobago, Carib.).

The Porifera live up to their names by having a characteristic arrangement of specialized cells imbedded in a spongy matrix (spongin), incurrent pores (ostia) formed by porocytes allow water into an open space (atrium) in their bodies and out one or more larger openings (oscula-ae). Their outer walls are supported by non-living calcareous or siliceous structural elements called spicules. Along with proteins these are the sponge skeletons of bathroom sponges derived from biological sources.

The phylum Porifera is subdivided into living (and extinct) Classes. One is the aptly named Calcarea, hard-bodied animals of stiff carbonate structure. Here is one such colony in N. Sulawesi.Other classes include the Hexactinellida (glass sponges), Sclerospongiae and what most hobbyists consider sponges, the Demospongiae. Only the latter are sold specifically in the trade, though all others members may show up as "incidentals" on LR, other hard substrates. 

The reasoning against lifting a sponge from the water is eminently clear in studying the drawing of a sponge. Once air is trapped in the atria, it is exceedingly difficult for the flagella-equipped collar cells or choanocytes to void it. The choanocytes are responsible for producing the water currents through the animal which bring in/out oxygen, carbon-dioxide, sex cells and waste, mainly ammonia. Most all sponges are filter feeders that mainly sieve out very fine particles, though tiny "killer" sponges have been making the news recently that capture larger prey like shrimp.

Provisional identification of sponge species can be trying. They're polymorphic much as Hard Corals, with color (browns, black, green, yellow, purple, pink to red), shape (boring, encrusting patches, ropes, balls, barrels, tubes...shown, examples of shape, color) and size of specimens influenced by factors like depth of water, light, current, and nutrient. To the genus and species determinations are only possible by examining the type, relative abundance and location of spicules in "melted down" live samples.

Species of Interest To Reef Aquarists:

Sponges are incidentally imported from all oceans along with Live Rock. You might be surprised to find that poriferans often make up the most biomass of Live Rock. Specimen sponges for the reef trade themselves are collected out of the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, (and mainly for European aquarists) the east African coast.

From the tropical west Atlantic we get a few species of bright orange and yellow Agelus (2)(shown, Agelus clathrodes, the Orange Elephant Ear Sponge, and an Agelus sp. one of the Brown Tube Sponges when it grows up). Of similar worthiness are Orange Ball Sponges, Cinachyra spp.( pictured)(2). There are a myriad of Vase Sponges out of the Caribbean as well. My favorite genus is Callyspongia (2).

Frequently offered are "Fire" and "Red Ball" Sponges that are mainly Tedania ignis (3). These are far less hardy choices, and can be toxic to your other reef life. I am similarly disdainful of Black-Ball Sponges, Ircinia strobilina and Grantessa hastifera (out of the Mediterranean) pictured)(3), which require bright lighting should you try them just the same.

Of about the same hardiness (3's IMO) though beautiful, are the upright forms like Green Finger Sponge, Iotrochota birotulata (below), Erect Rope Sponge, Amphimedon compressa, and Red-Orange Branching Sponges, Ptilochaulis sp

If you are keeping live Stony Corals, boring (as in digging, not yawning) species of Sponges of the genera Cliona (pictured, Cliona delatrix, the Red Boring Sponge; and Variable Boring Sponge, Siphonodictyon coralliphagum (3's) are definitely out. However, strangely enough, if you find the Orange Icing Sponge, Mycale laevis (pictured) growing under your plate-type corals, this is not a "bad thing". This Sponge actually protects the Stony Coral from Boring Sponge infiltration.

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From the Red Sea on out to the Indian Ocean, the Red Sponge, Latrunculia corticata (pictured) is about the best red Sponge choice going (2).

Clathria (shown) are encrusting forms that come out of the Caribbean and Far East, and do very well in captivity (1's). They're available in warm colors to white. And do look for other "freebie" sponge specimens on Live Rock (Diplasatrella, Monanchora, Phorbas, Spirastrella and more, (2's) these are encrusting species of red, orange, yellow and brown color.

Acervochalina sp., the Red Sea

Genus Agelas:

Agelas clathrodes, the aptly named Elephant Ear Sponge, right size (to a meter and a half across), wrong colour... orange.  Spongy; lumpy to bulbous vases. This pachyderm dimension specimen in Bonaire 8/09
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Agelas conifera, the Brown Tube Sponge. Typically smooth walled, brown to tan in color, smooth, velvety in appearance. Grow in clusters, joined at base. Bonaire pic. 

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Agelas wiedenmeyeri, the Brown Clustered Tube Sponge. Grow in clusters, joined at base, with pinched in openings. Key Largo pic. 

Genus Aplysina:

Aplysina archeri, the Stove Pipe Sponge. Long thin tubes of lavander, gray or brown. Soft to the touch. Tropical West Atlantic. Bonaire pic.

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Aplysina cauliformis, the Row Pore Rope Sponge. Long rows of excurrent siphons. Occur in tints of purple, reds. Antigua photo at right. 

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Aplysina fistularia, the Yellow Tube Sponge. Yellow to orange tubes that bear antler-like growths in shallows, and grow longer w/o these "antlers" in increasing depths. Don't touch! Purple color stains hands for days. Right: shallow colony in Bahamas and deeper one in Belize . Below: large  colony in Bonaire.

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Aplysina fulva, Here in Cozumel 2014.


Genus Atergia:

Atergia sp. Distinct species with octopus-sucker like papillations. Occur in red to white color on dead coral, protected regions. Western Pacific. N. Sulawesi image. 

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Axinyssa aculeata Wilson 1925. Yellow Axinyssa Sponge. 


Genus Callyspongia:

Callyspongia species. Blue Callyspongia. A species of Hawaiian sponge found living exposed on the open reef (as opposed to cryptically hidden as most sponges)

Callyspongia plicifera. Azure Vase Sponge. 6-18 inches. Tropical West Atlantic. Mostly light purple in colour, but some deeper water ones, supposedly dying, appear a beautiful gold. Bahamas pic. 

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Calyx podatypa Dark Volcano Sponge. Tropical West Atlantic. Smooth surface, w/ volcano-like osculae. Often infested w/ Zoanthids as here in Cozumel 2012

Cinachyra sp. Orange Ball Sponge. Tropical West Atlantic, to 100 foot depth, under ledges, in protected areas. To about 1/2 foot diameter orange ball-shapes, with many excurrent siphons riddling their surface. St. Thomas image. 

Clathrina canariensis Yellow Calcareous Sponge (Class Calcarea). A delicate, small (to four inches) bright yellow organism, made up of intertwined tubes. Tropical West Atlantic; usually found within caves or other shady spots. St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. 

Genus Clathria:
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Clathria mima (Laubenfels 1954). Indonesia. This one photographed to the north of Lombok. And another Clathria sp. in Fiji.

Genus Cliona:
Cliona delitrix Red Boring Sponge. Cozumel 2014

Cliona vastifica Boring Sponges. Widely distributed. About 165 described species. Here in the Red Sea. 

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A Cliona sp. waning

Cribrochalina vasculum, the Brown Bowl Sponge. Bahamas pix. 

Diplastrella megastellata Red-Orange Encrusting Sponge. Caribbean. To ten inches, seventy five feet in depth. Found in shaded areas, even under rocks, overhangs. St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.

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Drysidea sp. (Keller 1889). Indo-Pacific. Colonies as tough, encrusted upright blades, variable texture.  

Ectyoplasia ferox, Brown Encrusting Octopus Sponge. Occurs as both encrusting and in multiple-armed arborose morphologies. Bahamas pic. 

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Gelloides fibulatus (Ridley 1884), the Thorny Horny Sponge (am not making this up). Indo-Pacific; Malaysia. Comes in two forms, encrusting and tubular. Up to fourteen inches in height. Off of Pulau Redang, Malaysia. 

Grayella cyathophora Red Sea pic.

Out of the Indo-Pacific several warm colored Sponge genera/species are collected for the trade; my choice picks are the beautiful blue, yellow or purple Halichondria and Haliclona (shown). These two genera comprise hardy (1's), hermatypic finger and encrusting species requiring intense light.

Haliclona vetulina De Laubenfels, Purple Star-Sponge. Red Sea, Indo-Pacific. Made of distinctive channels about its osculae. An aggressive space competitor, displacing almost all sessile invertebrates, including corals. N. Sulawesi and two at Gili Air, Indonesia showing a mollusk being covered and a coral being overgrown. 
Halisarca sp. Thin, encrusting species with radiating canals that form star patterns with their collectivized excurrent siphons. Occur in several colors. St. Thomas 2014
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Holopsamma helwigi, Lumpy Overgrowing Sponge. Pink to Lavendar and lumpy to rope-like; often using Gorgonians as support. 4-16 inches. Curacao 2015.
Hymedesmia sp., Blue Sponge. Red Sea

Ianthella hasta. N. Sulawesi and Whitsundays, QLD, Australia close-ups. 

Ircinia strobilina. Black Ball Sponge. Roundish, w/ clustered osculae. Black to gray w/ white radiating lines. Cozumel 2012

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Lotrochota birotulata, the Green Finger Sponge. Made up of finger-like branches, often covered with Golden Zoanthids (as shown). Bahamas and St. Lucia pix. 

Ircinia felix, Class Demospongiae. Stinker Sponge. Light gray or brown encrusting globes, 6-12 inches in diameter. Conspicuous hexagonal markings on surface. Smells very bad on removal from water. Cozumel pix, close-up by Diana.F

Latrunculia sp. Red Sponge. Red Sea. Reportedly very poisonous (Baensch Marine Atlas).

Leiodermatium sp. Wavy Cave Sponge. Hard to the touch and distinctive in shape. Found in caves, within crevices. May be endemic to Hawai'i. Kona pix. 

Leucetta sp. Class Calcarea. Appear as opaque lemon-yellow masses with several osculae (excurrent openings). Tend to be compact, "potato-shaped". N. Sulawesi image. 

Leuconia palaoensis (Tanita 1943). Shy exterior of pale pink to light blue tubules of soft, thin material. Austro-Malay. N. Sulawesi image. 

On to Sponges Part 2  

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