British Columbia

B.C. sea sponges show unique resilience in face of climate change

Sally Leys, biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta, co-authored recent research on B.C.’s glass sponges that found the animals use very little oxygen compared to sea sponges in other parts of the world — well under 10 per cent of some species.

As oxygen levels fall in world's oceans, the low needs of glass sponges could help them endure

A glass sea sponge reef off the coast of British Columbia. The sponges can be as tall as 30 metres but are said to be as fragile as crackers. (Provided by Sally Leys)

As climate change deprives the world's oceans of oxygen, new research on B.C. sea sponges offers a glimmer of hope for some marine creatures.

Sally Leys, biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta, co-authored recent research on B.C.'s glass sponges that found the animals use very little oxygen compared to sea sponges in other parts of the world — less than 10 per cent of what some other species use.

"We tend to think of animals as like us, as basically needing a lot [of oxygen]," Leys told On The Coast guest host Jason D'Souza. "So it's sort of surprising to think that something might not need that much."

In a paper published in January, scientists said oxygen is disappearing from increasingly large areas of ocean and threatening marine life.

Oxygen loss in the ocean can be caused by agricultural and industrial pollution, but in the open ocean climate change is by far the biggest contributor, one scientist said.

Reefs 30 metres tall

The glass sponges on B.C.'s coast form reefs as they grow. They are found only off the Pacific Northwest coast.

The sponges' reefs can be as high as 30 metres and spread for kilometres, but they are extremely fragile.

However, Leys says her research shows the animals could be surprisingly resilient as the Earth's climate heats up and ocean oxygen decreases.

While other reefs could be killed by primarily human-caused climate change, she says the low oxygen requirements of the glass sponges is a reason to preserve the parts of B.C.'s coast where they live.

"I would say that there's a sort of glimmer of hope," Leys said. "Some of these … species could weather the storm."

Leys' research was published in the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology.

Listen to the full interview:

Sally Leys, biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta, co-authored recent research on B.C.'s glass sponges that found the animals use very little oxygen compared to sea sponges in other parts of the world - well under 10 per cent of some species. 6:17

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to clarify that sea sponge reefs can reach 30 metres in height, not the sponges themselves.
    Dec 11, 2018 2:51 PM PT

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