Prior to the 1990s the Florida Keys sponge community was a lively underwater city for fish and invertebrates. Curious divers could hear the snap, crackle and pop of snapping shrimp. The noisy bottom was a sign of health for the organisms that provide nursery habitat to juvenile marine species.

But now when divers plunge to the bottom, it’s as if the sponge community is on mute. There is no hustle and bustle of creatures foraging for their next meal, only silence.

Major phytoplankton, or algae blooms in the 1990s caused massive die-offs of the crucial species. More than 500 square miles of sponges in the Florida Keys suffered, representing an area bigger than the size of Los Angeles.

Because these sponges are a foundation species, their losses are having severe impacts on the ecosystems they support. A team of researchers, however, is testing transplant techniques to restore the community before it is too late.

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Researchers at the University of Florida and Old Dominion University, along with more than 40 volunteers from around the world have joined together for an ecosystem intervention. John Stevely, a sponge researcher and Florida Sea Grant agent emeritus, said transplanting sponge cuttings is a way to speed up nature so the ecosystem doesn’t reach a point of no return.

For more information, visit: https://www.flseagrant.orgFlorida Keys Sponge

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