One of the newly discovered wonders of the ocean, the carnivorous harp sponge is a unique species of deep ocean sponge discovered off the shore of California at a depth of more than 3,000 meters. Chondrocladia lyra – in its official designation – was named the “harp” sponge due to its unique harp-like shape. It was found to be quite different from most other species of sponges, due mainly to its less common feeding habits.
The carnivorous harp sponge is a sessile organism that was discovered in 2012 and, soon enough, became extremely popular, being listed among the top new discovered species in 2013. Boasting a highly unique, candelabra-like structure, the sponge is actually able to capture other sizable sea creatures in a unique and distinctive fashion, exposing it to ocean currents, so that it would have a better chance at catching its prey. Through its distinctive shape and development, as well as its uncommon feeding habits, the harp sponge quickly became the center of attention as scientists continue to uncover its many secrets.
The harp sponge has a body that resembles a lyre or harp, featuring one to six equidistant connections between its vertical branches. The sponge is able to anchor itself into the sea floor at extreme depths of up to 3,500 meters using a rhizoid structure shaped like a plant’s root. Covered by hooks and spines, the harp like branches have the role of acting as a net and capturing the carnivorous harp sponge’s prey with greater ease, as it is carried by deep ocean currents. Although most carnivorous harp sponges are quite small in size, the largest specimens ever discovered can actually reach up to 60 centimeters in length.
The feeding habits of the harp sponge is definitely one of its most distinctive features, mainly due to the contrast between its carnivorous development and that of other sponge species. The fact that most sponges are suspension feeders and feed mostly on the tiniest organisms, such as bacteria and other microscopic creatures, has been known for years. The carnivorous harp sponge, however, is something completely different. It feeds on larger prey, such as various copepods, using its unique hooks to capture its prey. Once it has done that, the sponge secretes a digestive membrane, somewhat like a cocoon, that slowly breaks down the captured prey, and turns it into vital nourishment that is then absorbed through the pores of the sponge.
It has already been discovered that the sponge is able to thrive in the extreme, unforgiving conditions of the deep ocean – at depths greater than 3,000 meters. But the species itself may be far more prevalent than it was first thought. Aside from the specimens discovered near the coast of California, C. lyra is also believed to dwell in other areas in the northeast Pacific, up to 1,600 km away from the Escanaba Ridge, where it was first spotted. Resilient and adaptable, the carnivorous harp sponge still likely has many secrets to share, as scientists are only just beginning to discover its many unique qualities.