My guest today is Siena Mckim. Siena is a PhD student at UC Santa Barbara studying sponges in the kelp forest, which is arguably one of the most iconic marine communities. In particular, she’s looking at sponge symbionts – basically, the tiny marine organisms that use sponges as a habitat.
Today we hear about Siena’s unique path to marine biology, developed in part from an unlikely interest in algae while at the University of Michigan, and accelerated by a love of SCUBA diving.
We then quickly transition to the wild diversity of sponges, including glass sponges the size of a minivan, to sponges that sneeze, and even carnivorous sponges! As mentioned, Siena is looking at sponge symbionts, so we discuss that research and some of the discoveries and mysteries that she is tracking.
Siena shares tons of fun facts in this episode, too. For example, I had to ask a cliché SpongeBob SquarePants question that might also be on your minds, but I was surprised at the answer! I’ll just say that you’ll have to listen to find out the reality of sponge fashion choices. And PLEASE read on below to see photos of some of these amazing creatures!
And of course, Siena offers tips for locating sponges yourself, whether on docks, in tidepools, snorkeling, SCUBA diving, or even in freshwater.
Did you have a question that I didn’t ask? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll try to get an answer! I’ll add these Q&As to my monthly newsletter, so if you aren’t already subscribed, go here. I promise, no spam. I share the latest news from the world of Nature’s Archive, as well as pointers to new naturalist finds that have crossed my radar, like podcasts, books, websites, and more.
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Links To Topics Discussed
People and Organizations
George Matsumoto – MBARI researcher
Ologies episode w/ Cal Academy of Sciences’ Rich Mooi about Echinology (Michael mentioned this episode during the interview)
Dockfouling w/ Cricket Raspett – past Nature’s Archive episode with all of the ins and outs of finding cool marine creatures on docks.
Books and Videos
EVNautilus – YouTube channel that Siena recommends
YouTube Video of sponges filtering dye – Jonathan Bird’s Blue World
Note: links to books are affiliate links
Opening – Fearless First by Kevin MacLoed
Closing – Beauty Flow by Kevin MacLoed
Both can be obtained from https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/
Thank you to Siena Mckim for providing these wonderful photos! Each of these was mentioned in the episode. And did you know that Siena is an artist, too? Let’s start there, with a piece of her work
Transcripts are automatically created, and are about 95% accurate. Apologies for any errors.
[00:00:00] Michael: Okay, Siena, welcome to the show.
[00:00:02] Siena: Thank you.
[00:00:03] Michael: As we were talking here a little bit ago, this is a topic that I know almost nothing about. And I tried to do research and the language, the biology, it was so foreign to me that I’m not sure much stuck. So I’m hoping that you’ll be tolerant of my questions today.
[00:00:20] And then I’ll probably learn a lot from you.
[00:00:22] Siena: Yeah I’m excited to talk about it. I am not a sponge physiologist, so a lot of that is also foreign to me, but I’m excited to answer any of the questions that I can.
[00:00:34] Michael: All right. So where did you grow up and how did you get interested in nature and then sponges.
[00:00:40] Siena: I grew up in San Diego next to the ocean. So thankfully I had the privilege to go swimming in the ocean all the time. And I had a friend who would take me surfing. And so I would do like the seamer shuffles, and I was really aware of these animals that were around the beach. And sometimes we’d go swimming with leopard sharks, which are really common in San Diego, like at the LA Jolla shores. And So I was interested in Marine biology pretty early on just because that was part of my life. But then I strayed away from that a little bit because I was so also into art. And so I was just more interested in doing like paintings and like sculptures. And so then I went over to the, university of Michigan for my undergrad and there I did a lot of my.
[00:01:34] And, but a lot of the art was focused on things in nature and especially organisms that people that really care about, like mold. I have some paintings of some moldy carrots, and have like fun guy. And then I took in my final year, took a freshwater algae class. And I was like, oh, allergies, like lame.
[00:01:58] It’s just like that green stuff that grows in ponds and nobody really wants it. But I realized how fascinating it is. And it’s this whole group of organisms side never realized was present. And that there’s so many organisms that aren’t animals or plants or fun guy. There’s like this whole other world of organisms.
[00:02:19] And so I was like, whoa, there’s so many things to explore . in that got me like super engaged in nature made me feel like, wow, I’m like actually doing some more discovery because in this class we had a research project and in the research project, me and my partner discovered a new species of diatom And so diatoms are a freshwater algae and they live in silica and this little glass house and they live in these like green jelly blobs that are around the lakes in Northern Michigan. And so I was like, wow, nobody’s ever looked at these before. Like I just felt like I made some kind of impact on science by discovering a species.
[00:03:03] And I’m like, there must be so many more things that nobody’s ever looked at that are just like right around our neighborhood. And so that’s just what got me really into doing research because I’m like, there’s so much to do.
[00:03:15] Michael: So the diatom that you discovered, was it just like in a water sample that you had pulled or did you see it? Like you’re walking near the lake and you’re like what’s this massive stuff, or
[00:03:24] Siena: Yeah.
[00:03:25] Michael: Work out?
[00:03:25] Siena: so we were going on field trips and like a lot of the classes were really fun. It was just like walking around weird wetlands and just scoop it up, water samples. And we kept seeing these green blobs everywhere. And so with these green blobs are, they’re actually a protozoa, which are like not an animal, but they start to act like animals and they’re microscopic, but they create these, they live in these colonies.
[00:03:53] And so they’re all like in this circular donut shape colony, and then they all have this mucus around them. So they just make a big mucus, like jelly blob donut in the water. And so I was like, oh, well, it’s like mucus, sticky. There must be diatoms inside of it. And so we looked at. The difference between the diatoms and the, mucus versus the water round it.
[00:04:18] And we found this diatom that was nowhere in the water around these jelly blobs, but super high concentration in these jelly blobs. And so it was this new, like commensal relationship that nobody had ever found. And also the species that are Tom had never been described. And so we were like, whoa, like we were the ones who like discover species in our class.
[00:04:39] Everybody was super excited for us.
[00:04:41] Michael: Yeah, that’s a common theme. I hear from a lot of people where there are these overlooked organisms that leads to a discovery and just like the novelty of wow, this whole other world exists. And we still don’t know about it for 7 billion people on the planet. And they still all this that we’re missing every day.
[00:04:58] Siena: Yes. Yes. I’m sure. Every one of those 7 billion people could discover a new species. There’s so much to find, especially if you just go to the microbes. Oh, I don’t even talk about that as.
[00:05:12] Michael: Yeah. It’s a good point. It’s not like we’re discovering Bigfoot or a new bear. It’s usually small things, but it’s still it’s, there’s just so much. Like I said before, the novelty of it.
[00:05:23] Siena: Yeah, totally. And so I was doing all these freshwater stuff and I came back to San Diego where I’m from and I was like, it’s time to fulfill my dream of scuba diving. And so I started my class and the first time we went out in the ocean, I dropped down. This was at the Hoya shores, which is like the Sandy flat area.
[00:05:45] And we dropped down like 20 feet and the sand was like moving. Yeah, Covered in these animals called . and basically they look like plushy feathers coming out of the sand, almost like the old school fountain pens that were like quills that were like feathers. And they were moving and our instructor poked one, it shot back down into the sand.
[00:06:12] And I was like, whoa. And there was like, sand dollars are everywhere. And I was like, okay, there’s these sea pens? , why has nobody ever talked about this before? They’re everywhere in the sand, just, all along the beach here, and nobody’s ever talked about it and they looked so weird. I’m like, okay, confirmed.
[00:06:33] There are so many Marine creatures that don’t get enough attention. And that we just don’t know a lot about, even though they’re so common. Everywhere just in so close proximity to like a city. So that was the moment that I was like, okay, it’s true. I am going to be a Marine biologist.
[00:06:52] Michael: Yeah, and just, I think it was just this week or last week, the ologies podcast. I don’t know if you’ve listened to many podcasts, but
[00:06:59] Siena: I do.
[00:07:00] Michael: She interviewed a researcher from Cal academy of sciences. And I think a big chunk of that was about sand dollars. At least say they, there was at least a portion of it.
[00:07:09] That was, and yeah, I had no idea that so little was known about something that seems so common. I think everybody has the experience. If you’ve walked on a beach of finding the old kinda shell of a sand dollar, but there’s such much more interesting creatures than what you would think from just seeing that little dollar shaped shell.
[00:07:28] So you fulfill this destiny of scuba diving and seeing these creatures and it triggered the next stage. So tell me a little bit about that next stage. Where did you go from there once, your eyes were open and open to this amazing.
[00:07:41] Siena: Oh my gosh. Well, yeah, so scuba diving changed my life basically. And also it was right before the pandemic. And so I got to scuba dive during the pandemic because, you can go in the ocean, there’s nobody around. And so I was photographing all these specimens the classic little Olympus TG five, and that was taking photos of these organisms all along the Hoya shores.
[00:08:07] In the canyon,
[00:08:08] So it’s taking all these photos and I was posting them to I naturalist, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. For people who don’t know, it’s just a place where like amateur, naturalists and scientists can come together and post photos of organisms that they find. And so I was posting a bunch of these to the me really weird sea creatures because nobody in my dive groups were like, didn’t know anything about them. And on there, I connected with this whole community of people who knew some more things about these invertebrate animals than I did. And one of those people was actually Tom Turner.
[00:08:47] So I was posting all of these sponges and tunicates from scuba diving, but then also I got really into looking at docks and Tidepool. I’m finding sponges and things there. And he was commenting on them. Like I’d done a knife, buying them for me. And so I was like, who’s this guy? So I went to his profile and I was like, oh, he’s at UC SB at this university, he’s a researcher.
[00:09:14] And I was like that’s cool. I wonder what he knows he researches. And if that’s if these invertebrate animals are something that I could study. And so I can’t remember if he reached out to me or I reached out to him, but.
[00:09:27] basically we started talking and he’s oh, have you considered going to grad school?
[00:09:32] And I was like, well, sort of now, because I can’t find a job, it’s the pandemic. So it’s definitely considering, oh yeah, I should consider that. That would be cool. He’s yeah, you could come to Santa Barbara and study sponges or tunicates. I was like, okay, that sounds good. And so then a year later I was like, okay I’ve applied and let’s like, do this.
[00:09:55] So that’s how I met my advisor was on I naturalist and was able to get to this point of being a grad student at UC SB. And now I’m studying sponges. And the other things that I’m working on.
[00:10:09] Michael: Yeah, I naturalist is a magic place. There’s so many connections that are made and I think I could still wear it. Look sometimes a lot of people are just so focused on, what is the identification of this thing, but there’s a social element to naturalists too. And yeah, Santa Barbara and not a bad place to be.
[00:10:22] What is your specific area of study then? What do you tell people that you meet on the street?
[00:10:28] Siena: Yes. So it’s really, it’s always really fun to tell people what I study because they’re like, okay, we are. Specific, or I didn’t really think about that. And I study the sponges in the kelp forest and more specifically, I study these tiny crustaceans that live in the sponges in the kelp forest it’s.
[00:10:48] So it’s this group of crustaceans called Paracytherida and includes, amphipods also known as scuds and freshwater ecosystems. But also isopods, which are like, are rolly poli looking guys that are in the ocean and also tanaids, which are like little mini lobster looking guys hooded shrimp, which are just very weird crunchy guy.
[00:11:14] And then opossum shrimp. And so it’s I’m obsessed with , this group just because they’re all like basically tiny and they. Sir, just put themselves into places all the time. Like when I would go tide pooling, I’d always have them crawling around all over my subjects and I’m like, oh, they’re everywhere.
[00:11:33] But yeah, I study what they’re, what are they doing in you sponges and thinking about sponges as a habitat and as like a home and how sponges themselves are this ecosystem and this whole world of interactions that nobody’s looked at. And so to me, it, it checks the box of being this scifi world.
[00:11:59] That’s on our planet, that’s in our backyard, but nobody knows anything that’s happening in there. And yeah, there’s, it’s not a field that there’s a lot of people in a lot when people are studying. So when you use the, usually studying more like the microbes, so like the bacteria and other small organisms but these are.
[00:12:18] On a slightly larger scale. These are like the vertebrate animals that are there in the sponges.
[00:12:23] Michael: Perfect. That’s a perfect topic for the podcast, because I’d love to get into these ecological stories and the interconnectedness of things. why don’t we start down that path a little bit more and well, in a way back up and get on the path. And just tell me what is a spine like?
[00:12:38] What’s what do they look like? What’s the diversity just characterize what you think. Around say, sounds like a lot of your experiences on the Southern California coast.
[00:12:46] Siena: Yeah. So sponges are super cool and you’ll find out why they’re one of the oldest inverter animals. So invertebrates are just the group of animals that don’t have a backbone, which is most of the animals on our planet. And. Sponges date back to, there?
[00:13:06] was a new study that dates them back to 890 million years old, which is so old Precambrian, which is crazy.
[00:13:14] Michael: I imagine the size of the birthday cake.
[00:13:16] Siena: Oh my God, the number of candles would burn down the whole house. But the, yeah, they’ve been around for So long. And what I’m seeing today is probably similar enough to what was back then. And what I’m seeing today are these sponges in the Kelp forests, all sorts of colors, they can be bright blue.
[00:13:40] A lot of them are white, but they can also be like yellow and pink and purple. And they can take on a lot of different shapes depending on where they are. What placement they’re in., If they’re in an area of high, a wave action, or are they in the sun that can also determine what it looks like or what color it is. And so my favorite ones are these group of sponges called Catherina, and they’re also called net sponges. And they basically look like a bunch of tubes that are all connected and wrapped around on top of each other, into a big ball. And so what you’re seeing is this sort of fibrous material that’s made out of spicules, so spicules are their skeletons.
[00:14:31] So they don’t have a skeleton per se like, as humans have, they have these tiny components called spicules and they can be made out of silica like glass, or they can be made out of calcium carbonate, and so they can do this come in so many different shapes because they can rearrange their spicules to have all these different shapes, like Lopes or pillars, or just a brain, all like ridges and stuff. Yeah. And you can find them everywhere.
[00:15:00] Michael: So do they w when you talked about some might be in sunny areas, or some might be where there’s a tidal action or wave action, are these all different? Would you consider them specialists? Evolve to beach in those very specific habitats.
[00:15:15] Siena: Yeah. So similar to other organisms, they prefer certain depths. So some of them I’ll only see in the tide pools and some of them will only see while scuba diving. And so they’ve evolve to. Be in these areas. And the whole sun thing is really interesting because they have the microbes that live inside of them, which can be hundreds of different types of microbes. And some of them have cyanobacteria, which is a type of photosynthetic bacteria. And so sometimes, especially on the docs, when I’m looking over, some of the sponges will be super purple or blue when they’re in the sun. But then like when they’re in the shade, they can be like more like gray in a lot of there. Hasn’t been a lot of research on that and it’s not, we’re not sure if it’s from the photo, symbionts like the photosynthesizing bacteria that’s inside of them playing a role in. But they are so like a Morphis sometimes like sometimes they can just be blob shape and other times they can be very structured and we’re not a hundred percent sure why it definitely has to do with the environment and things like the turbidity of the water or the placement that they’re on in the habitat.
[00:16:43] Michael: So that could be like the same species in different placements could look very different.
[00:16:49] Siena: Yeah. And So we call that they’re like they have cryptic morphology or their appearance can vary widely and some other cool sponges that I don’t study currently, but I’m hoping to study our deep sea sponges called glass sponges. And those ones they’ve found can be huge, like six feet tall. And there was one found somewhere in the Pacific that was like the size of a minivan. And so their size also can just range wildly too, depending on where they are.
[00:17:25] Michael: So a deep sea sponge, is that something you’d have to access like with a submersible or something it’s beyond scuba.
[00:17:31] Siena: Yeah.
[00:17:32] Or like a remotely operated vehicle, something that can get down there.
[00:17:37] Michael: And they’re all attached to some sort of substrate or are there like free floating sponges?
[00:17:44] Siena: So they are almost always attached to something. So usually something hard. There are a lot of sponges?
[00:17:51] too, though that are under sediment, but the ones in the kelp forest primarily are on something hard like rocks or, like another. Surface that’s hard like a doc.
[00:18:03] Michael: So then how do they make their living they’re attached. And you, you mentioned the movement of the water and wave action and things like that. Like what are they doing? How are they feeding? How are they growing?
[00:18:12] Siena: they artists, imagine a sponge and they have holes in them. So they have tiny little holes, like pinhole holes all around them. And those are the holes they use to suck in water and filter their food. So they usually eat smaller things like the bacteria or viruses in the water, and then they shoot it out of these larger holes, usually towards the top of the sponge. And so their filter feeding, but then all the stuff that they’re putting back out in the water. Can be classified as dissolved organic matter. Basically, that’s just another word for like poop or AKA food for other animals in the ecosystem. And so they’re pumping out all this, grouped up food for other animals, and that’s a lot of what they do is filter feed.
[00:19:03] But then like when I’m setting their physical bodies can also be habitat for other animals. And especially in deep sea ecosystems or glass sponge reefs, they make up a lot of just the physical environment that other animals use. And, hang out on.
[00:19:23] Michael: Oh, so many, places to go. So one thing that came to mind when you were describing the filter feeding action and how they will push out the excrement from larger holes towards the top. There’s a bunch of videos I know on YouTube. And there’s one in particular that I’ll link to in the show notes where some diver was actually putting in some dyed water.
[00:19:45] He said it was safe for this punch. So I trusted that it actually was, but you could actually see this filtering action and how quickly the dye would suddenly come out of these holes. It’s just amazing, like the efficiency of the sponge and that too is just incredible and how they are able to draw that water in which you don’t see, unless , it’s kind of like if you do a smoke test or something in the atmosphere, but with, dyed water in the.
[00:20:08] Siena: Yeah, they don’t look like they’re doing much, but they are sucking in large amounts of water there’s a lot of studies on how efficient of filter feeders they are and, combating these viruses that might be in the.
[00:20:21] Michael: So why don’t we get into, I know you’re super excited about the area of study. Like what, so now who’s living on these, what are they doing? Like how are these organisms making a living?
[00:20:31] Siena: Yeah. So there’s, I’m right now I’m studying just a couple examples of sponges and they’re crustacean associates. So summer is the best for collecting. So I’ve done some preliminary collecting to just see if my ideas are actually happening.
[00:20:50] And so I’ve seen, these soft sponges, It’s called the haliclona they’re super purple. At least these ones are, and they look like they’re making little volcanoes in inside of the sponge are really weird ISO pods. So that, isopods again, are these really poli looking crustaceans. And these, isopods are weird because when they’re larva, when they’re like babies, they’re sucking the blood of fish. And so you’ll find the babies larva on these fish sucking the blood, but then the adults are hanging out in these sponges. And so when I looked at the species of, that was in this sponge called the Nantha, they were this species that hadn’t really been documented in California. I’ve looked at the guides and I’ve looked at keys and I can’t find anything that looks like this.
[00:21:48] And at that I bad. And so just in like my first sample, I’m like, oh my God, there’s something that, is either face or is new to science. And so That’s what I’m expecting to see is these crustaceans in these sponges, just because nobody’s looked at the sponges as a habitat, and the relationship between this sponge and this ice abroad, I’m not fully, it’s not fully known.
[00:22:13] But I think they’re using the sponges as just a place to mate and have babies. And yeah, a lot of in this group in gnathiid it’s a lot of the males will have. A harem of females. And so they probably go to these sponges as like a social place to find the females and the females to find the males. And so that’s a really weird whole system that I really want to investigate more.
[00:22:39] Michael: That’s got to make it really, simultaneously exhilarating and uncomfortable because some of the basic questions that come up, you just have to discover it. It’s on you. It’s the way the weight of the world is on you for this discovery.
[00:22:53] Siena: Yeah. And I’m just like, so there are other observations of these gnathiid isopods, being in sponges, but yeah, it’s just weird to see an example of it and maybe a species that we don’t really know a lot about,
[00:23:09] Michael: Well, it begs so many questions like who are the predators of these ISO pods? Are they able to get at the isopods when they’re in the sponge? Is it a protective area?
[00:23:18] Siena: Right.
[00:23:19] Michael: lots of interesting things.
[00:23:21] Siena: Yeah. And there’s also predatory ISO pods. So these long notably looking ones and they’re creeping around and I’ve seen them in the tide pools, but not any of my sponges, but there are other predatory, that eat other, than amphipods. So they could potentially be doing something, but I haven’t seen anything yet,
[00:23:44] Michael: I assume there’s, technology’s like equivalent to a trail cam. Like, Can you actually put a camera on and monitor for an extended period and see what interactions occur?
[00:23:52] Siena: Yeah. I think you, you definitely could, but I think the field of view would sorta be difficult. Cause they’re so small, they’re like smaller than a grain of rice, basically.
[00:24:03] Michael: okay.
[00:24:04] Siena: And so I think that would be really hard with all the noise around the sponge, but there are, I know at Scripps research Institute of oceanography down at San Diego, they’ve developed these, little robots that will be able to go inside of corals and see what kind of hiding invertebrates are in the corals.
[00:24:27] And so if we could just get something that’s like even smaller to go into sponges, that would be great.
[00:24:33] Michael: Yeah, hopefully there’s an innovative nanotechnologists out there that can help you.
[00:24:39] Siena: Yeah. So until then, I’m just diving and collecting these budgets and taking them back to the lab and teasing apart all of these, the sponge versus what precision cell fine. And I finding a lot of other things too, but I focusing on these group of crustaceans just to have. Clear focus and chat. If You think there’s enough to find with justice wonder.
[00:25:01] Michael: You started to list off earlier several. I don’t know if they were, families with lights, lots of different types of organisms that invertebrates that you’d seen. So is these are the ones that you’re focusing on now, but but it sounds like there’s plenty of other ones to look at too.
[00:25:18] Siena: Yeah. Pare Karita is like the super order. And then like isopods, is the order or isopoda. So yeah, I’ve got, I suppose ads and then also one group that I’ve really been looking at and learn a lot about are amphipods. And so that’s just another order of these crustaceans. And a lot of last quarter was just me in the lab, spending hours, looking at one specimen and trying to ID it.
[00:25:45] You have to look at their tiny structures on their bodies, like their tail or the Telson, which is super tiny. So you have to dissect that off and look at it under a light microscope. And so I am now thinking about this way that scientists used to be. So a lot of scientists used to be a lot more exploratory collecting things, taking the back of the lab and looking at them something that you would call more of a taxonomist. And so doing this last quarter made me feel more like an original scientist, like more of a taxonomists and just looking at these organisms for what they are. So that’s been a lot of my work recently is just staring at these crustaceans.
[00:26:30] Michael: Have you found anyone else in the world that is doing anything similar like that you can drop. Yeah, for example, maybe the species am are different in South Africa than they are in California, but there may be some similar relationships that exist or things like that. Have you found anything like that?
[00:26:50] Siena: Yeah. So somehow I keep running into papers that are like from the nineties, but there’s a couple people who did studies on this one island off of Brazil and then, up in the Arctic. And so basically what they were doing was just seeing what’s the total number of invertebrates in these sponges.
[00:27:09] So they were looking not just at the crustaceans, but also Bristol worms, like polychaete worms and another weird group of animals called bryozoans. And so I haven’t necessarily found him. This specific looking into sponges just for this group, or like looking at a lot of different sponges to see what’s in them.
[00:27:29] It’s usually more okay, we’re looking at this one sponge because of this reason. Oh. And then we also found like these cool things inside of it. So what I’m doing is more like setting the foundation for this field. I feel like at least here in Southern California and trying to just see what’s up, cause nobody’s looked at it.
[00:27:52] So what are there actually with these weird relationships between sponges and crustaceans or is this sort of just like happenstance? So that’s when more genetic work is going to be important, that’ll do later on this year. Is there an evolutionary relationship between these sponge Holmes and the amphipods or isopods that are in them?
[00:28:19] Michael: it’s blowing my mind. How many things there are to tease apart. I’m sitting here thinking, okay, you go out and you might say you just collect one sponge that could keep you busy for years. It sounds like.
[00:28:31] Siena: yeah. So yeah, like the samples that I’ve looked at so far, one sponge has taken me five hours to just get through, to see, to pick apart all the different crustaceans that are in it. And then to attempt to identify all the, what all those crustaceans. Yeah, there’s a lot to do but that’s what I’m excited about.
[00:28:54] I just love looking at the microscope and teasing apart. These clumps of biodiversity.
[00:29:01] Michael: Depending on your goal, then you then know all of the species and then that’s another rabbit hole to go down okay, what are their lifestyles? Why might they be here? And then the genetics aspect, like maybe this is actually a little bit different than what’s been documented in the past.
[00:29:15] They just look the same. I don’t know. Yeah, so much. So your goal, you mentioned that sort of the peak time for a collection is coming up. I assume there’s a way to preserve the specimens that you collect so that you can look at them with a little less time pressure.
[00:29:30] Siena: What I’ve been doing recently is just diving, collecting, and then immediately go into the, of which is a lot of work, but I can also take these sponge samples and freeze them, and that’ll be good for preserving the DNA, but then also a lot of these Christine’s. Or really colorful. And when you freeze them, the color usually stays longer than you would by putting them in something like alcohol or ethanol.
[00:29:57] Michael: Okay.
[00:29:57] Siena: Yeah. So I’m hoping to collect this summer and then in the fall, do all the grunt work of organizing and looking.
[00:30:05] Michael: Yeah. It makes sense. Optimize the time that you have.
[00:30:08] Siena: Yeah.
[00:30:09] Michael: So being. Ignorant of a lot of Marine habitats. I’m curious about back to it, maybe sponges at a more macro level than a, than this sort of micro level that we’ve been at. Do they, is there much known about like succession in Marine environments and when do sponges show up in a Marine environment?
[00:30:29] Yeah. So it’s easy to see succession on land because there’s a clear plot of land. And then, the weeds come in and all the other plants with the Marine environment it’s happening all the time. It’s just harder to see, especially if you’re not like scuba diving or, but there is a type of succession.
[00:30:51] It’s not, I would say it’s not as dramatic usually as it would be like, let’s say a wildfire, like clears out a big area. It’s not necessarily like that in the ocean. But we do have storms and other seasonal changes that will wipe out certain, habitats. So like sometimes. During the summer, if it gets too warm, a lot of the kelp will just die.
[00:31:17] And so then that kelp forests is not there anymore. All of a sudden. And sometimes, usually the kelp comes back and it’s totally fine, but sometimes we get help urchin Barrens. And so this is when the kelp disappears that necessarily because of the temperature of the water, but because of the sea urchins that are all around eating it and the Kelvin not being able to recover as quickly and be able to repopulate.
[00:31:47] And so in those situations, there is sea urchins, but I wouldn’t say in these habitats where they’re CR and barons, sponges are coming in and establish. I see more CQ Cumbers for some reason, sea cucumber is really glove, sea, urchin, Barrens, and more like different kinds of bristle worms. And so when I do see sponges being more of a pioneer in a, area that’s been disturbed, it’s more like the docs in the harbors. And, yeah, mostly like I mostly see that kind of thing. Like they clear out all the stuff onto the cart and the, on a dock and usually sponges are one of the first things to show up.
[00:32:33] Michael: Interesting. And you, I think, read my mind a little bit, because when I was thinking about the fact that you’re studying in the kelp forest, yeah. There’s the classic example of the relationship between the sea urchins, the kelp sea otters and how the ecosystem can get out of balance pretty quickly for a number of reasons.
[00:32:53] And then the sea urchins just take over and the kelp go away. Then the otters, hopefully come back in and start to take care of the urchins, but it’s not always that simple. Yeah. Thank you for adding a little more color to that interaction too.
[00:33:05] Siena: Yeah.
[00:33:06] Michael: And there’s another tie in here.
[00:33:09] And in fact, I maybe got connected to you through through. Previous guests who talked about doc fouling. And so it sounds like a, maybe an easy way for someone who doesn’t know how to scuba dive to find sponges is to dock foul all. Do you have other, do you have suggestions as to how someone who maybe wants to go observe one, what they could do where they could look.
[00:33:28] Siena: Yeah. So you could definitely go to the docks and look over for sponges. They’re also on. In the tide pools, but I don’t see as many because it’s a lot shallower. So when the tide goes out, it’s harder to see those sponges. Sometimes they’re like deep under allege. And so they’re not necessarily in clean areas that you can really like, look, I also suggest snorkeling cause sometimes in like Rocky areas where there’s eel cross, you can snorkel and go down like five or 10 feet and take a look.
[00:34:04] at some of these sponges.
[00:34:05] There’s like these bright yellow ones that like the hangout in eel grass beds. And then even just snorkeling, I’ve been able to see these huge, whatever, our biggest species of sponges, the gray moon sponges, they are huge gray masses going along the rocks. And those would be fairly easy to spot. I’ve seen it. Gray moon sponge, like eight feet long here in Santa Barbara. And I’m sure there’s more to see of those.
[00:34:35] Michael: Okay. So thinking back a little bit to.
[00:34:38] You mentioned that sponges might show up on the docks first after they’ve been cleaned up. How did they get there?
[00:34:42] Siena: So sponges can reproduce sexually or asexually by, in both ways they create so sexually, they create a larva and this larva can swim around and it’s got like a little tail and you can swim around and establish on wherever it finds suitable. And then when. Asexually reproduce. They basically bought off a part of their body and that’s called it like a gemmule, and that can also go and establish on a cleared area. But what’s also interesting is these sponges can create cleared out surfaces too. So sponges seasonally can expand and then contract. So when they expand, they push off anything else that’s on like the rock or something. And then when they contract, there’s all this cleared space for some other pioneering organism to establish.
[00:35:43] So that’s cool because them in selves are habitat, but then they’re also making this other habitat for other things to be their neighbors, which I think is really cool. What are the things that got me super into sponges was this paper that came out last year, that was on sponge trails.
[00:36:00] So up in the Arctic, there?
[00:36:03] was this group of scientists who were taking photos of these sort of tennis ball looking sponges. And they noticed there’s like these trails behind them. And so they investigated this and they found that these were a trail of spicules that they left behind while they were moving. And so it’s okay, what is happening here? Like sponges can move. That is insane. Like physically move, not just expand and contract and what they have to do. It’s basically re construct their entire skeleton. And so it like sorta like this like conveyor belt, they should just like reconstruct their skeleton to like.
[00:36:41] What you would guess would say walk along the bottom of the ocean.
[00:36:46] Michael: And then they break it off.
[00:36:47] Siena: Yeah. So they’re like moving in there, breaking pieces and leaving spicules and what, I don’t think it was this paper, but another paper was talking about how these spicules, that are left behind will help the sponges offspring settle on the spicules.
[00:37:03] So it creates this harder substrate for their baby sponges to establish. So we’re not exactly sure why they’re moving, but it seems to also help their offspring. And it seems like these sponges might be trying to move somewhere higher up where the hit more current, if they just happened to establish them were bad.
[00:37:24] So that was like my blowing to Laredo.
[00:37:28] Michael: Yeah. To that point in time, there were no documented species of sponges that would self-propel that.
[00:37:36] Siena: Yeah. And in that fashion of moving forward, like not really, there was some research done. I want to say like 2016 where they did find sponges, what they call sneezing. And So these glass sponges, again, at the bottom of the ocean deep, they would expand out like a little triangle and then just curl in on themselves and they expand back out and they still don’t know why they’re doing that They can’t find like this pattern between. The expanding dragging and like the current or anything, it’s just seems like it’s totally random. So there has been a little bit of research on that, but it’s very limited.
[00:38:22] Michael: So that expanding and contracting is causing them to propel.
[00:38:25] Siena: Um, Not necessarily. So they’re stocked and then this like spanning and contracting is like the more spongy looking part on top. So they like like whip around on their stock and then they’re expanding and contracting. Yeah,
[00:38:38] Michael: Interesting.
[00:38:39] Siena: And then there, if we’re going to talk more about these cool deep sea sponges, there’s some that are carnivorous. And so they’re using their skeleton, their spicules so literally catch prey and then the digest that, so it’s oh my gosh, so they’re homemakers, but now they’re eating the things that are in their home.
[00:38:58] Like it’s just. It’s so dark.
[00:39:00] Michael: Yeah. I don’t even know where to go with that.
[00:39:02] So how about freshwater sponges? I know such a thing exists. Can you tell me a little bit about their diversity and where their.
[00:39:09] Siena: Yeah. So Marine sponges are super diverse and there’s a lot that we’re still discovering, but with freshwater sponges, it seems like it’s this one group that just decided they’re going to try to call as fresh water. And so it’s this group called sponges, sponges plus spongy, Ella, very sponge oriented names.
[00:39:33] And so it’s this one group and you can find them all across north America. And I believe Europe, but definitely north America. And so they’re bright green and they’re like these fibrous non spicule containing sponges and. They are bright green because of these photosynthesizing algae that lives within them. And So it’s called zoochlorella. So let’s zoochlorella photosynthesizes has a place to stay. And then it was this photosynthesizing gives the sponge some oxygen and helps them feed. So that’s a really great example of like how these sponges are like little houses and you can find them. I found them all over Michigan in slow moving rivers or streams usually. And then I, when I was in Yosemite last summer, I was swimming and I was, it was so cool. Cause I was like swimming with them because they were actually really big growing on the logs that fell in the trees that fell into the river. So they’re all over the place in freshwater bodies.
[00:40:42] Michael: So much to discover. I’ve never seen one myself. I’ve never looked for one, but I will certainly look for them now that I know that they’re just down the road, basically, and Yosemite’s.
[00:40:51] Siena: Yeah. And there, I would look, it’s great because they’re more shallow because they had these photosymbionts. So they’re pretty easy to spot when they are in a body of water.
[00:41:01] Michael: So how about any myths or misconceptions with respect to sponges that you’d like to dispel? Do they wear pants and ties like SpongeBob? I don’t think so.
[00:41:11] Siena: No, but the guy who created SpongeBob wasn’t Marine biologists.
[00:41:15] Michael: really?
[00:41:16] Siena: he had, yes, he had that going for him. So they did not wear clothing, but some interestingly, the, some of the spiders that I found diving in the deeper spots, like. The kelp forest and point Loma in San Diego, they will have basically it seems like a carpet on them.
[00:41:35] So they’re super like shaggy and the cause the spicules are coming out. And so it’s catching all this stuff that we call flock that’s in the water and it just gives them like a sweater. And so that could be counted as clothing. I guess
[00:41:49] Michael: Okay. So you’re actually confirming that yet.
[00:41:53] Siena: this is not a myth. This is fact other myths. People think sponges are soft. Usually very not soft their pokey. They have these either glass or calcium carbonate spicules, they’re sticking out. So a lot of times, actually when I pick up sponges, I will be stabbed by that. And some of them have this chemical that makes your fingers numb.
[00:42:16] So that’s always fun too, but I think people think they’re soft because bath sponges are what they’ve been exposed to. And so the history of bath sponges is pretty interesting because they started in like the middle ages, they got popularized in Greece. And so they would take this sponge and dry it out and the fibers would be left.
[00:42:39] It doesn’t have any spicules, so it’s a little more soft. And then they introduced sponges to Europe during like this middle ages and they became super popular and. People started like people in there, armies would start using the sponges as padding under their armor or even weirder.
[00:42:59] Some people would use sponges as contraception. So families have many uses.
[00:43:05] Michael: I’ll leave. I’ll leave that as an exercise to the listener to think about what that might look like. I don’t even, I don’t even know. So maybe to wrap up, you talked a little bit about some Keystone moments in your own progression, you know, some of the things you saw, scuba diving and so forth.
[00:43:21] Do you have any recommendations for others in terms of books or documentaries, YouTube clips that that might be interesting.
[00:43:32] Siena: So I think the most available sponge content is actually from the deep sea. I’ve been watching for a long time. It’s ed Nautilus on YouTube. They do some live streams too, but they will post a lot of videos highlighting these deep sea sponges that they’re finding all over the world. That’s a great one.
[00:43:53] And then Monterey bay aquarium research Institute and Bari, they have a lot of great sponge content, but in terms of non deep sponge stuff, there’s not a lot of places to go to find this stuffs. So a lot of what I did was just like an iNaturalist and to see how diverse they are. And , if there’s something that I want people to realize is that there are so many species of sponges that are undescribed and that we don’t know anything about, even in California and alone.
[00:44:25] Tell my advisor has estimated that there’s like over a hundred species of sponges of California that are just undescribed. It’s not like they’re rare there. A lot of them are really common. They just haven’t been described. And yeah, I myself have been trying to find great sponge content that’s, a lot more user-friendly, but I, there’s not a lot.
[00:44:45] I am hoping in the next year or two to create a sponge guide so he could look out for that.
[00:44:53] Michael: That’d be cool. And let me know when you do it and I’ll be sure to share it with I, I have a monthly newsletter. I try to share interesting things like that. So I’ll be sure to do that.
[00:45:02] Siena: Yeah. And basically the way I got inspired by spoon is I meant mentioned briefly earlier, just like these scientific papers that had come across. And one of the scientific papers that came across was this, study on this one glass sponge. And they took one of the speckles, big, old spicule made of silica glass and they shot a laser. And they found that it acted like a fiber optic cable, so it helped conduct light. And so all of these sponges at the bottom of the ocean are made out of fiber optic cables basically. But is that.
[00:45:38] just coincidence, like a by-product or are some of these spun is actually using this? So when I found this out, I was like, okay, we’re at the bottom of the ocean.
[00:45:46] There’s no light, but like maybe there is light. And so I came across another paper that talked about how they found light at the bottom of the ocean at these hydrothermal events. And so there’s these hydrothermal, that’s spitting out all this, these chemicals and hot water, and That’s creating a type of light that’s that we really can’t see, but is there, and they found these strengths that are using this light, that they can, they only have receptors in the eyes to see this type of light date.
[00:46:18] And put me down this crazy scifi rabbit hole of okay. The sponges to the volume, the ocean, they can conduct light there’s light at the end of the motion what’s happening. And so that’s just a whole thing that we probably didn’t have time to talk about, but that is so cool. Just to think about.
[00:46:38] Michael: it is. And who’s to say that the fact that we as humans, we’ve defined what the visual spectrum is, but who’s to say that’s the same for any other animal, I know you can look at the receptors and you can gain a rough idea. But so many animals, especially in the ocean have not been studied to that extent.
[00:46:54] So yeah, why not?
[00:46:55] Siena: right. Yeah. So weird. And I could just go on forever about it, but , there’s. Jellyfish and like comb jellies that have receptors to see light, but they don’t have a brain. So it’s like, what do they do with that information if they actually could pay up on light? So it’s just we still, we don’t know the biology of the most basic animals.
[00:47:16] There’s so much going on that we just don’t know anything about.
[00:47:19] Michael: As is, has made it through the pop science literature in the last decade or so trees can communicate, but they don’t have brains, it’s just a totally different system. And we look at this all through a human lens and then later discovered, well, wait, there’s other ways to make these things work too.
[00:47:34] So I love your enthusiasm for yacht for these subjects.
[00:47:38] Siena: Yes.
[00:47:39] Michael: So speaking of that, and tying into sponge content, where can people follow you and see more about.
[00:47:47] Siena: I’m on I naturalist, I post a lot of my. Observations from scuba diving and tide pooling on there. My username is imlichentoday. That’s what I used to really be in the lichens back in college. I just really liked the name. So I’m sticking with it. And then , my Instagram is the same imlichentoday.
[00:48:07] Yeah, I post a lot of stuff, especially just random stuff that I’m doing in the lab. Like weird creatures that I’m coming across and.
[00:48:14] Michael: Yep. It’s a fun follow I’ll link to those for sure. And I guess the other thing I wanted to remind people of if anyone out there is a scuba diver, I have a friend who actually just moved to the San Diego area and he and his wife keep posting scuba pictures. And I’m always telling them, put it on.
[00:48:29] I know they’ll, even if it’s just a tiger shark or something like that, put it on. I want to establish that habit because there’s so many things that probably could use a few more observations. I Nat.
[00:48:39] Siena: Yes, absolutely anything can be Postlight yes. Especially more in the Marine environment. There’s so many things that are on undocumented, under a document. So I highly recommend,
[00:48:51] Michael: And do you have any other upcoming projects or anything you’d like to highlight?
[00:48:54] Siena: well, I keep talking about deep sea sponges and there is a possibility I will be working on them soon. So we actually had somebody from MBARI at the Monterey bay aquarium research Institute. They do a lot of deep sea exploration with remotely operated vehicles. And George Matsumoto came down on Monday to give a seminar.
[00:49:17] And so I be talking to him and my advisor, we’ve all been talking about getting up to MBARI . Collecting some of these deep sea sponges and , starting some work on them. Because for me, I thought oh, we know so much about deep sea sponges because that’s, my whole world is just reading these papers.
[00:49:35] But I have been told by George and other people no, we don’t know anything about these sponges. Please do something about it. So I’m really hoping to start doing some work on do cities fund is soon,
[00:49:50] Michael: That would be super cool. And MBARI is I followed them for years. It’s just amazing. The things that they find. And for listeners who don’t know about MBARI and Monterey bay, the middle of the bay is bisected by an ultra deep canyon. And I assume that’s where they’re going and where you’d be looking for the, yeah.
[00:50:09] So it’s really accessible. The canyon is right there. And yeah, then they have these these vehicles that they can remotely pilot down to specific areas and check in with lights and cameras and sampling gear. And, it’s almost like a space vehicle, but for a hundred water at a way.
[00:50:26] Siena: Yeah.
[00:50:26] Michael: really exciting.
[00:50:27] Siena: yeah. It’s like one of my dreams. I’m just like, oh, like it’s getting closer. I was freaking out.
[00:50:33] Michael: Yeah. I need to get some MBARI representative on the podcast. I hadn’t really made that connection until today, but yeah, that, that would be a fascinating discussion.
[00:50:41] Siena: Yeah. That would be so cool.
[00:50:43] Michael: All right. Well, is there anything else that you want to say before we close out?
[00:50:49] Siena: Sponges or animals. And they have sometimes have a lot of personality, even though they don’t have a brain. So yeah. I just hope people. Have any perspective on sponges and invertebrates in general and have a good time trying to find them?
[00:51:03] Michael: I feel bad. I didn’t, that, that was something I was thinking of leading with is these are animals yet. They don’t have all the things that we often associate with animals. So I’m glad that you squeezed that in here at the end. Okay.
[00:51:15] Siena: Yes, totally.
[00:51:17] Michael: All right. Well, Siena, it’s been a lot of fun and your enthusiasm is infectious, for sure. Hopefully the MRE research works out and you’ll be coming back down the road, telling us all about the discoveries you’ve made in the deep sea.
[00:51:31] Siena: Yes. That would be awesome. Thank you so much.
[00:51:34] Michael: Thank you for being here today.