Researchers discover 15 new marine species in New Zealand and Antarctica

Researchers have discovered 15 new species of New Zealand and Antarctic marine sponges while cataloguing hundreds of already-known species, 

NIWA researchers discovered 14 new species and one fossil species while examining and registering more than 250 sponge specimens in the family Latrunculiidae.

Marine biologist Dr Carina Sim-Smith said the research is important because sponges are a "key habitat-forming animal in New Zealand's marine environment". Sim-Smith said they provide food, shelter and a surface for other marine life to grow from.

They are also known to possess anticancer and antiviral effects, with recent FDA-approved drugs derived from sponges being shown to reduce certain cancers.

"Ocean habitats are vulnerable to damage by human activities, so knowledge of sponge biodiversity is critical for understanding the function of seafloor ecosystems to help improve their management. If we don't know what species live in our waters, how can we monitor the impacts that we are having?" Sim-Smith said. 

The research was published in NIWA's latest Biodiversity Memoir, which it has been compiling since the 1950s. They give a comprehensive, definitive, and illustrated description of New Zealand's marine life, including animals such as sponges, corals, worms, molluscs, crustaceans, and sea stars.

Sim-Smith said telling species apart is notoriously challenging due to the lack of detailed descriptions available, which makes the Memoirs even more valuable. 

"These Memoirs are indispensable for scientists and conservationists because they provide a record of the beautiful and unique biodiversity that's found in our oceans, much of which is found nowhere else in the world," she said. 

"The fact over 5 percent of the specimens we sampled were new to science shows that there's still so much of our marine environment that we know nothing about. What else is left to be unearthed, and what could be under threat or go extinct without us ever knowing they existed?"

Latrunculiidae sponges inhabit a wide range of environments. From the coasts of New Zealand to the icy waters of Antarctica, they can be seen when diving on shallow reefs as well as at depths of over 2500 metres.

The new NIWA Biodiversity Memoir can be found here