Several marine sponges sequester high concentrations of carotenoids in their tissues. The diversity of carotenoid compounds has been described in detail for a handful of species, but to date, little attention has been paid to natural variability in the concentration and constituency of carotenoid pools. Also lacking are experimental tests of some of the proposed adaptive benefits of carotenoids to the sponge. To address some of these deficits in our understanding of sponge ecology, we used a combination of analytic chemistry, field surveys, and manipulative experiments to determine what function these compounds might play. Attention was focused on the common, carotenoid-rich intertidal sponge Clathria (Microciona) prolifera from Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, USA. Surveys of pier pilings indicated that C. prolifera was most common towards the surface of the water, with an average depth of 1 m, and also occurred most frequently on pilings exposed to sunlight. Total carotenoid concentrations (as estimated from spectroscopy) were maximal when solar radiation was nearing its northern maximum. However, HPLC analysis of crude acetone extracts highlighted several instances where concentrations of individual putative carotenoids were maximal during thermal (not solar) maxima in Chesapeake Bay. Naturally occurring sponges growing in environments protected from direct sunlight were found to have significantly lower total carotenoid concentration. In a manipulative field experiment, sponges transplanted from exposed habitats to shaded habitats showed significant decreases in carotenoid concentrations. HPLC analysis demonstrated that concentrations for several of the pigmented compounds decreased under reduced light levels. Given that sponges do not produce carotenoids de novo, the ecological role that these compounds play in sponge physiology deserves greater attention. Our findings indicate that solar radiation is an important factor in shaping carotenoid profiles of C. prolifera. While the physiological role and ultimate source of these compounds remains unclear, our data point to an adaptive function and indicate that C. prolifera is a useful species to address these questions.

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Copyright © 2010 Bentham Open. This article first appeared in The Open Marine Biology Journal 4 (2010), 87-95.

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