Contrasting biological features in morphologically cryptic Mediterranean sponges

Garate, LeireBlanquer, Andrea ; Uriz, María Jesús. PeerJ 5 : e3490 (2017) DIGITAL CSIC

Sponges are key organisms in the marine benthos where they play essential roles in ecological processes such as creating new niches, competition for resources, and organic matter recycling. Despite the increasing number of taxonomical studies, many sponge species remain hidden, whether unnoticed or cryptic. The occurrence of cryptic species may confound ecological studies by underestimating biodiversity. In this study, we monitored photographically growth, fusions, fissions, and survival of two morpho- logically cryptic species Hemimycale mediterranea Uriz, Garate & Agell, 2017 and H. columella (Bowerbank, 1874). Additionally, we characterized the main environmental factors of the corresponding species habitats, trying to ascertain whether some abiotic factors were correlated with the distribution of these species. Sponge monitoring was performed monthly. Seawater samples were collected the same monitoring days in the vicinity of the target sponges. Results showed contrasting growth and survival patterns for each species: H. mediterranea totally disappeared after larval release while 64% of individuals of H. columella survived the entire two years we monitored. The species also differed in the number of fissions and fusions. These events were evenly distributed throughout the year in the H. mediterranea population but concentrated in cold months in H. columella. No measured environmental factor correlated with H. mediterranea growth rates, while temperature and dissolved organic nitrogen were negatively correlated with H. columella growth rates. The strong differences in depth distribution, survival, growth, fusions, and fissions found between these two cryptic species, highlights the importance of untangling cryptic species before ecological studies are performed in particular when these species share geographical distribution.