Thirty miles west of Grays Harbor, University of Washington scientists have discovered large colonies of glass sponges thriving on the seafloor. The species of glass sponges capable of building reefs were thought extinct for 100 million years until they were found in recent years in the protected waters of Canada's Georgia and Hecata straits, the only place in the world they've been observed until now.
The discovery in Washington waters extends the range of reef-building glass sponges into open ocean.
The sponge reefs could be important to the ecosystems on the Washington coast because they create a thriving oasis dense with sea life on seafloor that is otherwise sparely populated for miles, says Paul Johnson, UW professor of oceanography and chief scientist on the UW's ship Thomas G. Thompson, June 10-16, when the Washington glass sponge reefs were discovered. The glass sponge reefs were alive with zooplankton, sardines, crabs, prawns and rockfish.
"It's like looking at an overcrowded aquarium in an expensive Japanese restaurant," he says.
The Washington sponge reefs are each hundreds of feet in length and width. It's possible that the state has reefs comparable to the Canadian reefs that are miles in length, Johnson says.
The glass sponge reefs on the continental shelf west of Grays Harbor appear to be thriving on specialized bacteria that consume methane gas that the UW scientists were surprised to discover flowing out of the seafloor in copious amounts. Methane has not been detected by Canadian scientists near their glass sponge reefs, thus the Washington margin reefs could represent a new type of ecosystem on the shelf, one where the abundant biology is fueled by methane gas derived from ancient carbon in the sediments, Johnson says.
The glass sponges so-called because their skeletons are made of silica (the same material as beach sand) come in un-sponge-like shapes similar to cups and funnels. They range in
Contact: Sandra Hines
University of Washington