Research Article

Marine Biology

, Volume 146, Issue 2, pp 301-313

First online:

Habitat use by sponge-dwelling brittlestars

  • T. P. HenkelAffiliated withCenter for Marine Science, University of North Carolina at Wilmington
  • , J. R. PawlikAffiliated withCenter for Marine Science, University of North Carolina at Wilmington Email author 

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Cryptic organisms often associate with sessile invertebrates for refuge in space-limited environments. To examine interspecific habitat associations on coral reefs, tube- and vase-shaped sponges were surveyed for associated brittlestars at six sites on the coral reefs off Key Largo, Florida. Of 179 sponges encountered, Callyspongia vaginalis was the most abundant (43.0%), followed by Niphates digitalis (39.7%), and Callyspongia plicifera (4.5%). Three of eight sponge species surveyed did not differ from C. vaginalis in two physical refuge characteristics: oscular diameter and inner tube surface area. Brittlestars (416 total), all of the genus Ophiothrix, were only found in C. vaginalis, N. digitalis, and C. plicifera. The most abundant brittlestar, O. lineata (326), occurred on C. vaginalis (99.0%) and N. digitalis (1.0%), while O. suensonii (67) occurred on C. vaginalis (79.1%), N. digitalis (19.4%), and C. plicifera (1.5%). There was no pattern of co-occurrence of O. lineata and O. suensonii on C. vaginalis. The abundance of O. lineata increased with surface area of C. vaginalis. Differential habitat use was observed in O. lineata, with small individuals (<5 mm disk diameter) located inside and on the surface of sponge tubes and large individuals (≥5 mm) solely inside tubes. The number of large O. lineata in C. vaginalis never exceeded the number of tubes per sponge, and tagged O. lineata remained in the same sponge for at least 3 weeks. In density manipulations, no pattern of intraspecific competition among large O. lineata was observed; however, there was evidence for interaction between size-classes. Brittlestars selected live sponge habitat over a non-living refuge, suggesting a mechanism for sponge habitat recognition. Sponge-dwelling brittle stars prefer some tube- and vase-shaped sponge species despite similar oscular diameters and surface areas. Surprisingly, these preferred sponge species are known from previous studies to be chemically undefended against generalist fish predators; therefore, brittlestars that inhabit these sponges do not gain an associational chemical defense. Sponge habitat use by O. lineata may be governed by intraspecific interactions to maintain habitat and access to food. While past studies have suggested that O. lineata is an obligate sponge commensal, the present study suggests that O. lineata has a species-specific association with the tube-sponge C. vaginalis.