, Volume 155, Issue 2, pp 159-171

Redwood of the reef: growth and age of the giant barrel sponge Xestospongia muta in the Florida Keys

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Abstract

The growth of animals in most taxa has long been well described, but the phylum Porifera has remained a notable exception. The giant barrel sponge Xestospongia muta dominates Caribbean coral reef communities, where it is an important spatial competitor, increases habitat complexity, and filters seawater. It has been called the ‘redwood of the reef’ because of its size (often >1 m height and diameter) and presumed long life, but very little is known about its demography. Since 1997, we have established and monitored 12 permanent 16 m diameter circular transects on the reef slope off Key Largo, Florida, to study this important species. Over a 4.5-year interval, we measured the volume of 104 tagged sponges using digital images to determine growth rates of X. muta. Five models were fit to the cubed root of initial and final volume estimates to determine which best described growth. Additional measurements of 33 sponges were taken over 6-month intervals to examine the relationship between the spongocoel, or inner-osculum space, and sponge size, and to examine short-term growth dynamics. Sponge volumes ranged from 24.05 to 80,281.67 cm3. Growth was variable, and specific growth rates decreased with increasing sponge size. The mean specific growth rate was 0.52 ± 0.65 year−1, but sponges grew as fast or slow as 404 or 2% year−1. Negative growth rates occurred over short temporal scales and growth varied seasonally, significantly faster during the summer. No differences in specific growth rate were found between transects at three different depths (15, 20, 30 m) or at two different reef sites. Spongocoel volume was positively allometric with increasing sponge size and scaling between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the sponge indicated that morphology changes from a frustum of a cone to cylindrical as volume increases. Growth of X. muta was best described by the general von Bertalanffy and Tanaka growth curves. The largest sponge within our transects (1.23 × 0.98 m height × diameter) was estimated to be 127 years old. Although age extrapolations for very large sponges are subject to more error, the largest sponges on Caribbean reefs may be in excess of 2,300 years, placing X. muta among the longest-lived animals on earth.

Communicated by A. McLachlan.