This Monster of the Sea Could Be One of the World’s Oldest Living Animals

May 26, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

World's oldest animal, a giant sponge
Photo credit: Daniel Wagner and Christopher D. Kelley (CC BY 4.0). Image has been cropped

‘Living fossils’ that can survive for millennia!

On a recent expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, researchers from the NOAA Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and the University of Hawaii spotted a massive marine sponge in the water’s depths.

The sponge was captured on high-definition video by remotely operated vehicles. Using special image analysis software, the researchers determined that the sponge was 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) in length and between 1.5 and 2 meters (4.3 and 6.6 feet) in width, exceeding the dimensions of the largest previously known specimen.

SEE ALSO: Living Fossils: Creatures from another Era

Its size is impressive, but what is truly hard to fathom is just how old this monster of the sea could be. Sponges come in all sizes, and the large ones are estimated to live for more than 2,300 years.

This particular colony was not sampled, but the researchers collected a specimen of what they believe to be the same species during a previous dive at a nearby location. By examining the spicules — small spiny structural elements — under the microscope, they identified the specimen as a member of the Rossellidae family.

Giant sponges, like this newly discovered one, provide key ecosystem services “such as filtering large amounts of seawater, as well as providing important habitat to a myriad of invertebrate and microbial species,” the researchers wrote in the journal Marine Biodiversity.

Their services become all the more remarkable with the knowledge that they have been performed over a time span of hundreds or thousands of years.

“The finding of such an enormous and presumably old sponge inside the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument underscores the need to protect this area using the highest conservation measures available,” the researchers wrote.

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