Some coral basics to help get you started
Common name(s): Sponges
Sponges are similar to other animals in that they are multicellular, heterotrophic, lack cell walls and produce sperm cells. Unlike other animals, they lack true tissues and organs, and have no body symmetry. The shapes of their bodies are adapted for maximal efficiency of water flow through the central cavity, where it deposits nutrients, and leaves through a hole called the osculum. Many sponges have internal skeletons of spongin and/or spicules of calcium carbonate or silicon dioxide. All sponges are sessile aquatic animals. Although there are freshwater species, the great majority are marine (salt water) species, ranging from tidal zones to depths exceeding 8,800 m (5.5 mi).
While most of the approximately 5,000 - 10,000 known species feed on bacteria and other food particles in the water, some host photosynthesizing micro-organisms as endosymbionts and these alliances often produce more food and oxygen than they consume. A few species of sponge that live in food-poor environments have become carnivores that prey mainly on small crustaceans.
Most species use sexual reproduction, releasing sperm cells into the water to fertilize ova that in some species are released and in others are retained by the "mother". The fertilized eggs form larvae which swim off in search of places to settle. Sponges are known for regenerating from fragments that are broken off, although this only works if the fragments include the right types of cells. A few species reproduce by budding. When conditions deteriorate, for example as temperatures drop, many freshwater species and a few marine ones produce gemmules, "survival pods" of unspecialized cells that remain dormant until conditions improve and then either form completely new sponges or recolonize the skeletons of their parents.
Sponges constitute the phylum Porifera, and have been defined as sessile metazoans (multicelled immobile animals) that have water intake and outlet openings connected by chambers lined with choanocytes, cells with whip-like flagella. However, a few carnivorous sponges have lost these water flow systems and the choanocytes. All known living sponges can remold their bodies, as most types of their cells can move within their bodies and a few can change from one type to another.
Like cnidarians (jellyfish, etc.) and ctenophores (comb jellies), and unlike all other known metazoans, sponges' bodies consist of a non-living jelly-like mass sandwiched between two main layers of cells. Cnidarians and ctenophores have simple nervous systems, and their cell layers are bound by internal connections and by being mounted on a basement membrane (thin fibrous mat, also known as "basal lamina"). Sponges have no nervous systems, their middle jelly-like layers have large and varied populations of cells, and some types of cells in their outer layers may move into the middle layer and change their functions.
The few species of demosponge that have entirely soft fibrous skeletons with no hard elements have been used by humans over thousands of years for several purposes, including as padding and as cleaning tools. By the 1950s, though, these had been overfished so heavily that the industry almost collapsed, and most sponge-like materials are now synthetic. Sponges and their microscopic endosymbionts are now being researched as possible sources of medicines for treating a wide range of diseases. Dolphins have been observed using sponges as tools while foraging.
The skeleton of an individual scleractinian polyp is known as a corallite. It is secreted by the epidermis of the lower part of the body, and initially forms a cup surrounding this part of the polyp. The interior of the cup contains radially aligned plates, or septa, projecting upwards from the base. Each of these plates is flanked by a pair of thin sheets of living tissue termed mesenteries.
The septa are secreted by the mesenteries, and are therefore added in the same order as the mesenteries are. As a result, septa of different ages are adjacent to one another, and the symmetry of the scleractinian skeleton is radial or biradial. This pattern of septal insertion is termed "cyclic" by paleontologists. By contrast, in some fossil corals, adjacent septa lie in order of increasing age, a pattern that is termed serial and that produces a bilateral symmetry. Scleractinians are also distinguished from the Rugosa by their pattern of septal insertion. They secrete a stony exoskeleton in which the septa are inserted between the mesenteries in multiples of six.
The modern scleractinian skeleton, which lies external to the polyps that make it, is composed of calcium carbonate in the form of aragonite. However, a prehistoric scleractinian (Coelosimilia) had a non-aragonite calcium carbonate skeletal structure. The structure of both simple and compound scleractinians is light and porous, rather than solid as in the Rugosa.
In a colonial Scleractinia, the repeated asexual division of the polyps causes the corallites to be interconnected, thus forming the colonies. There are also cases in which the adjacent colonies of the same species form a single colony by fusing. The living polyps are connected by horizontal sheets of tissue extending over the outer surface of the skeleton and completely covering it. These sheets are outgrowths of the main body of the polyp, and include extensions of the gastrovascular cavity, so that food and water can constantly circulate between all the different members of the colony
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