Animals & Wildlife Magazine

Aquatic Sponges Observed Sneezing

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

A recent study has found behavior similar to sneezing in aquatic sponges, suggesting that such simple aquatic creatures - without brains - are more sophisticated than previously thought. 

Aquatic Sponges Observed Sneezing

Image courtesy of Gregory Moine

Sponges do not have a nervous or digestive systems.  In real life, these porous invertebrates are stationary creatures with a central cavity called an ‘osculum’, which releases waste matter into the water.  Very simple indeed. 

But scientists have observed in sponges a small behaviour, similar to sneezing, that could mean that there is a lot more to these simple creatures.  The study, by Sally Leys and Danielle Ludeman of the University of Alberta, Canada, has observed finger-like protrusions in the osculum.  These protrusions are similar to the cilia found in human nostrils in order to help us sneeze.  When we breathe in foreign particles, sensors in our nostrils and sinuses detect them, and subsequently send signals to the cilia, which then move – like tiny paddles - in order to expel the irritants.

The study has found similar ‘fingers’ within the osculum of the sponge.  If a foreign body is detected, the ‘fingers’ will send a signal to the sponge, provoking the creature to contract its whole body and a flume of water and chemicals will be ejected.

This is very interesting as, according to scientists, sponges do not actually have a single sensory cell.  Gert Worheide, a sponge-evolution expert from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, remarks on its importance, saying that it “clearly demonstrates that sponges are more sophisticated”  than previously thought.  What is really exciting is that this has a larger implication for evolution in general. 

“The sneeze is a delightful behaviour,” said study leaderSally Leys of the University of Alberta, “and one that is a great tool for understanding how coordination systems may have arisen during the evolution of early multicellular animals.”

Sponges are primitive creatures and, if the cilia indeed functions as some sort of sensory organ, the sponge is perhaps the first instance of complex sensory systems in the history of evolution.  This finding could be incredibly helpful in our understanding of the evolution of the brain in other animals.  

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