Osteoporosis in the world’s oceans: bioeroding sponges are threatening coral reefs

Frankfurt, 19.09.2012. Due to the massive production of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide our oceans are becoming increasingly acidic. Scientists of Senckenberg am Meer in Wilhelmshaven studied the consequences of ocean acidification on sponges that bore into calcareous materials such as coral skeletons. Results show that these sponges will profit from global changes, while coral reefs are threatened in their survival. The study was published today in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

Increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide are not only changing the atmosphere, but also the oceans: Carbon dioxide reacts with water and forms carbonic acid, which acidifies the seas. The pH decreases simultaneously with this acidification, having mostly negative effects on many organisms in our oceans.

„Especially organisms that form calcareous skeletons, such as corals, will have to expend more energy in more acidic conditions“, states Dr. Max Wisshak from Senckenberg am Meer in Wilhelmshaven. „In contrast – so our hypothesis – organisms that bioerode calcareous skeletons by biochemical etching should have an easier job in future and should thus be counted into the small circle of winners of the global change.“

To test this hypothesis the team of scientists in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Marine Science and GEOMAR – Helmholtz Centre for Oceanography in Kiel conducted elaborate experiments at the largest coral reef on earth, the Australian Great Barrier Reef, working with the bioeroding sponge Cliona orientalis. This demosponge is widely distributed, belongs to the most aggressive bioeroders, and will in future very likely contribute even more to the erosion of many coral skeletons in the Great Barrier Reef.

„We were able to confirm a clear relationship between the pH of the seawater and the bioerosion rate of these sponges“, says Wisshak. „Our data predict an up to 25 percent increase of sponge bioerosion until end of this century!“

As bioeroding sponges often contribute the lion share of coral bioerosion on tropical reefs, with increasing ocean acidification the reefs will be exposed to a duplicate burden: calcification will be more difficult, and existing skeletons will be more strongly weakened by bioerosion. „This may lead to a shift from present-day positive reef growth to future negative budgets with stronger reef bioerosion. In consequence our reefs would be threatened by yet another stress factor“, explains the marine geologist from Wilhelmshaven.

Testing effects of rising sea surface temperatures in the world’s oceans – another consequence of the present global change – revealed a comparatively small influence on bioerosion rates of the sponges. What the sponges do not mind has a serious outcome for corals: Rising temperatures have a large impact on corals: Heat stress causes „bleaching“ in corals, and in consequence they can die in dramatic mass mortality events.

The outcome of severe bleaching events is disastrous as reefs are home to many marine organisms and the basis of a complex food chain – all the way up to humans.


Dr. Max Wisshak
Senckenberg am Meer
Marine Research Department Ph.: +49-4421- 9475 202

Judith Jördens
Press Office
Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung
Tel. +49-69-7542 1434

Wisshak, M., Schönberg, CHL., Form, A. & Freiwald, A. (2012) : Ocean acidification accelerates reef bioerosion. PLoS ONEhttp://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0045124

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These photographs are available for publications through the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung.

The research of life forms in their diversity and their ecosystems, climate research and geology, the search for past life and finally the understanding of the entire earth/life system that is what the SENCKENBERG Gesellschaft für Naturforschung works towards. Exhibitions and museums are the windows to natural history research, by which means the Senckenberg shares the latest scientific knowledge with the public and provides an insight into past ages and the diversity of nature. More information is available at www.senckenberg.de.

Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung, 19 September 2012. Press release.

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