40 new sponge records for Singapore

A spongy kind of love
Expert finds 40 new species to add to rich haul in local waters
Shobana Kesava, Straits Times 30 Aug 08;

SINGAPORE'S only sponge expert has uncovered 40 new records of this primitive life form in local waters over the past year.

This is just a fifth of the total number now known in Singapore, says Mr Lim Swee Cheng, 31.

'It was rather easy to find them. Every trip I made to places like Cyrene Reef and Pulau Semakau, I'd see 20 to 30 species. Our tropical waters make the biodiversity very rich with species,' the researcher said.

The new finds all come from the inter-tidal zone - the shoreline which receives the most exposure to the elements with the rise and fall of the tide.

In all, Mr Lim has found 102 sponge species.

'Most in our records were from coral reefs in the 1800s. Now it's about 50-50, half in the inter-tidal zone,' he said.

The taxonomist has even spotted one brand new species not found anywhere else in the world, which has not been named yet.

Mr Lim, who is a scientist with the Tropical Marine Science Institute of the National University of Singapore, said he made discoveries on most of the over 20 shores scoured, including the Chek Jawa wetlands, Labrador Nature Reserve and Pulau Hantu.

The top sponge-spotting area turned out to be at the Pulau Semakau landfill, south of the main island of Singapore, said Mr Lim. This large expanse - covered with sandy, silty areas, coral rubble and sea meadows - allows a greater diversity of sponges to thrive, he pointed out.

Mr Lim's work is part of a $45,000 project to study sponges in the inter-tidal zone, sponsored by the National Parks Board.

The board's biodiversity centre promotes the understanding of our local natural heritage.

The centre's assistant director, Dr Nigel Goh, said that sponges here are little studied.

'If we can't even name a species, there is no way of going any further, to find out what special properties it may have.'

Chemicals from natural products are a source of interest to pharmaceutical companies which see potential life-saving compounds in them.

Asked why he pursues this form of work which no other Singaporean has ventured into since the 19th century, Mr Lim said: 'There's a need for this work because sponges are a key component of the marine environment. Plus, sponges in my opinion are beautiful.'

RED MAIDEN FAN: Arguably Singapore's prettiest sponge, the Oceanapia sagittaria is just 7cm high. The fanlike protuberance is not always present and its body is buried in soft sediment, making it hard to spot despite it being common in local waters. -- PHOTOS: LIM SWEE CHENG

NEW SPECIES: Yet to be named, this wiry specimen looks rather like roti jala. It was spotted on estuarine reefs in the Johor Strait, attached to gravel. Its diameter measures up to 20cm.
STELLETTA CLAVOSA: Commonly found in the inter-tidal zone, these look like bristly olives. The sponge is covered in tiny spicules which are sharp enough to prick bare skin.
BATH SPONGE: Spongia ceylonensis is often found insilty environments here. Bath sponges are noted for the amount of water they can hold within their porous bodies.
HALICHONDRIA CARTILAGINEA: A massive branching sponge commonly found in lagoons of the Southern Islands. It is able to photosynthesise as well as feed on microscopic animal matter.
NEPTUNE'S CUP: First sponge ever found in Singapore, Cliona patera was spotted in 1822. It is commonly known as Neptune's Cup. Standing up to 1m tall, it is among the world's largest sponges. Now believed to be extinct here, it can be found in the Gulf of Thailand and in Australian waters. But sightings are rare.
SPONGILLA SP: This is Singapore's only freshwater sponge, Its gemmules, or seeds, could have been brought in on the feet of migratory birds. A 300m long carpet of it was found in Yishun.

Related link

Found in Singapore: A new species of sponge

Shobana Kesava, Straits Times 9 Aug 08;

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