The Lurkdragon's Lair

Fifty percent animals, fifty percent fandom, one-hundred percent nerd.

Posts tagged marine life

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Heart of Glass


It’s been almost a year since I last wrote an article about sci-fi animals that are kind of real, previously talking about Yapping Maws and Yards from Metroid and plant-animal hybrids from all sorts of media. Today I wanted to tackle a common theme that shows up in space-faring sci-fi stories: silicon based life. Chemically, silicon acts a lot like carbon, the element that makes up the basic building blocks of our organic chemistry. It’s been hypothesized that a silicon based organic chemistry could have evolved on some distant world. Star Trek took on this idea with the Horta, blobby rock-like beings that lived for an extremely long time. While the Horta are a work of fiction, today I’m going to talk about an animal with an interesting silicon-based adaptation.


A horta, not old vomit.

When I say “animal,” you probably think of dogs or monkeys or lizards or fish. Some of the snarkier folks might mention jellyfish or sea cucumbers. But today’s animal is the least animal-y of them all: the sea sponge. Specifically, I’m going to be talking about a class of sponges known as Hexactenellida, the glass sponges. These animals are white, bowl-shaped filter feeders that usually live in deep ocean trenches. While “glass” is a word often used in biology to talk about translucent or lustrous body parts, here it used literally.

Glass sponges are named because they build a support structure made entirely out of glass. Sponges don’t have any organs or tissues, and are more like clusters of specialized cells built on top of each other. This body structure means that they need an external “skeleton” to maintain their shape. These structures are called spicules and are usually made from calcium. Glass sponges, however, use silicon to build these structures. Specifically, they combine silicon with oxygen to make silicone dioxide (SiO2), which is glass. When humans manufacture glass, it has to be done at extremely high temperatures and often results in imperfections. These sponges forge glass at low temperatures are the spicules they make are nearly flawless.


That’s more closely related to you than to seaweed.

An animal making its own glass is pretty amazing on its own, but it’s what the sponges do with these spicules that’s truly mind-blowing. While their primary function is structural support, glass sponge spicules are also fibrous. Since sponges lack uniform tissues, they often rely on symbiotic relationships with bacteria and algae to provide them with all the nutrients they need. Thing is, these organisms rely on light to survive. Sponges that grow in shallow water don’t have an issue finding enough food buddies to survive, but the deep oceans have almost no light. Yet, glass sponges grow to surprising sizes.

Scientists have discovered that their glassy spicules transfer light in a similar process that fiber optic cables use. They beam light into the bowl of the sponge, allowing the algae and bacteria to grow inside the animal itself. Analysis of these spicules has also shown them to be stronger, more flexible, and more efficient light transfer systems than any human-manufactured fiber optic cable. They are also created at a far lower temperature, so unlocking the secrets of the sponge’s spicules could be a boon for the information technology industry.


Fiber optic cables, which we apparently can’t make as well as sea sponges. Humanity is a failure.

While glass sponges barely look alive, they exist because of a unique process of silicon manipulation that creates a fiber optic skeleton system for them to inhabit. While the rest of their chemistry is still carbon based like all other life, their spicules represent an important step in understanding what sci-fi scenarios may not be too farfetched. As scientists continue to the quest for life outside this solar system, being able to identify potential alien biology is crucial to that mission.

Until next time, folks, keep looking for the answers of the stars deep within our own oceans.

(Source: sarpadianempiresvol-viii, via light-of-aether)

Filed under neato sponges glass sponges wildlife marine life queue long posts

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Southern Resident population down to 78.

(Source: chellekie, via dreams-of-whales)

Filed under sads orcas marine life wildlife southern residents dolphins cetaceans