Thomas Turner, a marine researcher, dives through the kelp forests in Southern California regularly. His goal was to photograph and collect over 300 sea sponge specimens to learn more about the many sponge populations that dwell off the golden coast. Turner had been spotting odd beige spots on kelp forest rocks for a few years. Anyone else could have overlooked them or completely missed them. He guessed, though, that they were sponges, which he had never seen before.
Turner wanted to identify his samples, so he sequenced their genomes in the lab. With their formless forms and monotone beige bodies, many sea sponge species are difficult to distinguish with the naked eye, especially the ones Turner gathered. DNA, on the other hand, shows all of their differences. Turner determined that he had uncovered four previously unrecorded sponge species from the order Scopolinida after extensive sequencing and cross-referencing with current data and study. The results of his research were published in Zootaxa magazine.
In a statement, the scientist stated, “I obtained the DNA and was startled to hear that they were in Scopolinida, which is almost exclusively tropical.” This order of species has never been sighted in the eastern Pacific, let alone in California’s non-tropical seas.
Turner isn’t the first person to find new sponges. Using the same methods, he was able to discover a new species last year. He called it Galaxia gaviotensis, or Gaviota galaxy sponge, for the star-like particles in its structure.
Turner was given the honor of naming the four new sponges as the species’ discoverer. Scopalina goletensis was named after the town of Goleta, while S. kuyamu was named after the Kuyamu settlement that previously stood on the beach where the sponge was discovered. After a frequent pattern found in Indo-Islamic architecture, he called the third species S. jali. Finally, he named the fourth S. nausicae after Nausicaä from Studio Ghibli’s film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
California’s kelp forests are popular diving destinations with easy access and regular study sites for marine scientists. In a statement, Turner added, “[These sponges] live out in the open; divers have been swimming by them for decades.”
“They’re everywhere throughout Southern California, and they’re really prevalent. Simply said, no scientist has ever picked one up and examined it to see what it was.”
Turner’s recent results show that there’s still a lot more to learn about our aquatic backyards. Sponge research is typically constrained, he says, since scientists don’t fully understand their taxonomy—all of the species that exist and how they’re connected evolutionarily. He plans to keep diving and discovering additional sponges in the area in the hopes of elucidating diverse species and their genetics and eventually making sense of the region’s evolutionary past.