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Originally published March 8, 2014 at 4:08 PM | Page modified March 8, 2014 at 4:58 PM

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‘Beautiful’ killer sponge threatens coral reefs

For the past decade a vibrant orange sponge has been glomming onto South Florida’s colorful coral reefs and boring inside the coral, competing with it for space. It is now seen as a threat to coral reefs, though study is continuing.

Sun Sentinel

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It’s such a vibrant orange that divers think it’s part of South Florida’s colorful coral reefs.

But it’s a destructive sponge that for the past decade has been spreading and threatening corals, which already are deteriorating around Florida and the Caribbean.

“It’s a beautiful orange sponge, but it is an excavating sponge, able to bore inside the coral,” said Andia Chaves-Fonnegra, a doctoral student at the Nova Southeastern University (NSU) Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Fla, who is heading a research project into the scourge.

Normally, reefs have natural defenses. Yet the current death rate for local reefs has been high because of seaborne diseases and warmer waters. That has given the orange sponge — which can reproduce three to five times a year — more room to grow, said Chaves-Fonnegra, 34, of Delray Beach, Fla.

“The sponge is not what we call an invasive species, but it is a strong competitor, specifically with coral,” she said.

For now, the sponge’s spread is being monitored. But to stem its growth, Chaves-Fonnegra said ocean pollution should be reduced, as the sponge is nurtured by sewage and other materials.

Often crusty and pockmarked, sea sponges are classified as animals, even though they don’t have circulatory, digestive or nervous systems. They survive on the water flowing through their bodies to obtain food and oxygen.

Chaves-Fonnegra, with help from others at NSU, recently discovered the orange sponge, formally called “Cliona delitrix,” is proliferating because its larvae attach to dead parts of corals. That aspect of its attack had gone undetected, even though it was widely known the sponge could be deadly.

When it attaches to corals, it takes up space where new corals — made up of colonies of tiny animals that secrete calcium carbonate — would otherwise start to grow.

“The sponge makes holes inside the coral and dissolves the calcium carbonate,” she said. “It erodes the coral’s three-dimensional structure.”

Even without the threat of killer sponges, coral reefs are under constant attack from parasites and predatory fish, such as the lionfish.

Chaves-Fonnegra has been diving into waters around the Caribbean to monitor the sponge and is writing her doctoral dissertation on it.

Her work is important toward ensuring the coral reefs remain healthy, said Joe Lopez, an associate professor at the NSU Oceanographic Center.

“We’re trying to understand how the sponge reproduces and its overall pattern,” he said.

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