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Florida Sponges Rebounding; What Killed Them Remains A Mystery

See also "Mystery-Sponge Killing Disease Now Seen From Palm Beach to Keys" and "Sponges in Palm Beach Hit By Disease"

Earlier this year, a mystery ailment ravaged sponges off the coast of Florida, from the Keys up to Palm Beach. Scientists became alarmed as reports rolled in of massive barrel sponges dying.

Ed Tichenor of Palm Beach County Reef Rescue first reported in early April that the maroon-colored sponges were losing pigment. A few weeks later, Tichenor said that 15 to 20 percent of the sponges he initially documented were disintegrating into yellow blobs.

"Whatever went through, went through like a wildfire," he says.

By mid-June, things were looking better for the marine life form. The maroon pigment had started returning to the tissue of some of the sponges, and the ailment wasn't spreading to more sponges. In the first week of July, many of the specimens originally impacted were well into recovery. While the sponges appear to be rebounding, scientists are now left wondering what triggered the widespread phenomenon.

Tichenor says it's likely that whatever affected the sponges started in the Keys and worked its way up the reef tract. And he's found a clue that might help point scientists in the right direction: Just weeks before the first dying sponges were observed, there was a short span in which the Loop Current -- a cycle of warm water in the Gulf of Mexico -- linked up with the Florida Current, according to records from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

At least one scientist is trying to determine the catalyst for the die off, but funding for this type of research is hard to secure.

Jose Lopez, an associate professor at Nova Southeastern University, collected samples of the dead tissue in hopes of conducting molecular-level analyses to pinpoint the cause.

"We have lots of diseased tissue and healthy tissue that we can compare," he says. "If we can get enough data of what's going on at the genetic level ... we might have a good idea of what caused this."

Lopez hasn't had a chance to look at the interaction between the Loop Current and Florida Current, but says it's worth looking into. He also notes that it rained heavily in the weeks before the first sick sponges were reported, though it's unclear if there's any relation.

Some experts have suggested that an ailment known as sponge orange band disease is the culprit. But the problem is nobody can say for sure what causes the disease.

"We're lucky that whatever it is didn't kill [more sponges]," Lopez says. "But it got 15 percent or so, which is a lot."

Lopez is busy seeking funding to conduct a study on the tissue samples he collected without much luck. The National Science Foundation turned down a recent proposal.

If traditional routes to finance the research continue to fail, Lopez plans on turning to crowd-sourced options like Kickstarter in order to get the work underway.

The ideal is to hire a graduate student to help wade through the massive data sets that accompany this type of research. Such a project would cost about $30,000, Lopez says, but he could start running experiments with as little as $5,000.

Until Lopez finds a donor, it's likely we'll never know what killed the sponges.

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Chris Sweeney

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