Physiological Processes in Sponges

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the various body forms and bodily functions of sponges

Sponges, despite being simple organisms, regulate their different physiological processes through a variety of mechanisms. These processes regulate their metabolism, reproduction, and locomotion.


Sponges lack complex digestive, respiratory, circulatory, and nervous systems. Their food is trapped as water passes through the ostia and out through the osculum. Bacteria smaller than 0.5 microns in size are trapped by choanocytes, which are the principal cells engaged in feeding, and are ingested by phagocytosis. However, particles that are larger than the ostia may be phagocytized at the sponge’s surface by pinacocytes. In some sponges, amoebocytes transport food from cells that have ingested food particles to those that do not. In sponges, in spite of what looks like a large digestive cavity, all digestion is intracellular. The limit of this type of digestion is that food particles must be smaller than individual sponge cells.

All other major body functions in the sponge (gas exchange, circulation, excretion) are performed by diffusion between the cells that line the openings within the sponge and the water that is passing through those openings. All cell types within the sponge obtain oxygen from water through diffusion. Likewise, carbon dioxide is released into seawater by diffusion. In addition, nitrogenous waste produced as a byproduct of protein metabolism is excreted via diffusion by individual cells into the water as it passes through the sponge.

Some sponges host green algae or cyanobacteria as endosymbionts within archeocytes and other cells. It may be a surprise to learn that there are nearly 150 species of carnivorous sponges, which feed primarily on tiny crustaceans, snaring them through sticky threads or hooked spicules!

Although there is no specialized nervous system in sponges, there is intercellular communication that can regulate events like contraction of the sponge’s body or the activity of the choanocytes.


Sponges reproduce by sexual as well as asexual methods. The typical means of asexual reproduction is either fragmentation (during this process, a piece of the sponge breaks off, settles on a new substrate, and develops into a new individual), or budding (a genetically identical outgrowth grows from the parent and eventually detaches or remains attached to form a colony). An atypical type of asexual reproduction is found only in freshwater sponges and occurs through the formation of gemmulesGemmules are environmentally resistant structures produced by adult sponges (e.g., in the freshwater sponge Spongilla). In gemmules, an inner layer of archeocytes (amoebocytes) is surrounded by a pneumatic cellular layer that may be reinforced with spicules. In freshwater sponges, gemmules may survive hostile environmental conditions like changes in temperature, and then serve to recolonize the habitat once environmental conditions improve and stabilize. Gemmules are capable of attaching to a substratum and generating a new sponge. Since gemmules can withstand harsh environments, are resistant to desiccation, and remain dormant for long periods, they are an excellent means of colonization for a sessile organism.

Sexual reproduction in sponges occurs when gametes are generated. Oocytes arise by the differentiation of amoebocytes and are retained within the spongocoel, whereas spermatozoa result from the differentiation of choanocytes and are ejected via the osculum. Sponges are monoecious (hermaphroditic), which means that one individual can produce both gametes (eggs and sperm) simultaneously. In some sponges, production of gametes may occur throughout the year, whereas other sponges may show sexual cycles depending upon water temperature. Sponges may also become sequentially hermaphroditic, producing oocytes first and spermatozoa later. This temporal separation of gametes produced by the same sponge helps to encourage cross-fertilization and genetic diversity. Spermatozoa carried along by water currents can fertilize the oocytes borne in the mesohyl of other sponges. Early larval development occurs within the sponge, and free-swimming larvae (such as flagellated parenchymula) are then released via the osculum.


Sponges are generally sessile as adults and spend their lives attached to a fixed substratum. They do not show movement over large distances like other free-swimming marine invertebrates. However, sponge cells are capable of creeping along substrata via organizational plasticity, i.e., rearranging their cells. Under experimental conditions, researchers have shown that sponge cells spread on a physical support demonstrate a leading edge for directed movement. It has been speculated that this localized creeping movement may help sponges adjust to microenvironments near the point of attachment. It must be noted, however, that this pattern of movement has been documented in laboratories, it remains to be observed in natural sponge habitats.

Watch this BBC video showing the array of sponges seen along the Cayman Wall during a submersible dive.

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