When Scientists Found a Sponge That Looked Like E.T., They Named It 'Magnificent Alien'

When Scientists Found a Sponge That Looked Like E.T., They Named It 'Magnificent Alien'

This newly discovered sponge is called Advhena magnifica, which means “magnificent alien” in Latin. It is also known as the “E.T. sponge.”
This newly discovered sponge is called Advhena magnifica, which means “magnificent alien” in Latin. It is also known as the “E.T. sponge.”
Photo: NOAA Ocean Exploration

A few years ago, scientists on the Okeanos Explorer came across a peculiar landscape while examining the deep ocean about 850 miles southwest of Hawai’i. There were a wide variety of sea sponges rising up on their stalks, their bodies turned to face the main current, which carried tiny food particles. The scene inspired one of the scientists to denote the landscape the “Forest of the Weird.”

But the group on the Okeanos Explorer, which was on an expedition led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was in for yet another delightful surprise. Among all the other strange sponges was one that stood out for its long, thin neck, elongated head, and huge eyes. Remind you of anyone, or rather anything, famous? For the scientists, the resemblance was clear: The mysterious sponge looked like a mini version of E.T., Steven Spielberg’s beloved alien in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and as it turns out, it was an entirely new type of sponge.

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The Mysterious ‘E.T. Sponge’ Turned Out to be a New Genus and Species of Sponge

The Mysterious ‘E.T. Sponge’ Turned Out to be a New Genus and Species of Sponge

Spotted in 2016 and 2017, the E.T. sponge was discovered by Cristiana Castello Branco, a post-doctoral researcher at NOAA Fisheries’ Systematics Laboratory at the National Museum of Natural History. In an interview with NOAA, Castello Branco explains that it’s a long process between when scientists first see a sponge and when they can confirm it’s a new sponge and give it a name.

“While we know very little about deep-sea sponges, we do know they are very abundant, so chances are often good that we will find new species,” Castello Branco said.

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How Scientists Confirm Whether They’ve Found a New Sponge

How Scientists Confirm Whether They’ve Found a New Sponge

To confirm they’ve found a new sponge, scientists have to analyze its spicules, or the skeletal elements of the sponge, using powerful microscopes. Castello Branco said that the types of spicules and how they are organized vary across different types of sponges. Thus, scientists use them to make identifications. However, besides that, researchers must also compare what they see to all the known species of a particular genus.

In this case, Castello Branco said once she began to examine the sponge’s spicules, she realized they were different from those of any other known species.

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Say Hello to Advhena Magnifica

Say Hello to Advhena Magnifica

One of the best things about the E.T. sponge is that its scientific name, advhena magnifica, literally captures what the scientists thought when they first saw it. Advhena magnifica means “magnificent alien” in Latin. Castello Branco affirms that scientific names for new animals are always Latin or Greek, and that scientists usually try to associate the name to something unique about the species. They can also choose names to honor someone, the name of the expedition, or the name of a locality.

Advhena is from the Latin advena, which means alien, but in the sense of visitor, foreigner, or immigrant, although we (humans) were the actual visitors to the sponge’s deep-sea home when we found this ‘magnificent alien,’” Castello Branco told NOAA.

You can read more about Castello Branco’s discovery of the E.T. sponge in the paper she and her colleagues published in 2020 here.

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Describing the E.T. Sponge

Describing the E.T. Sponge

For those who haven’t had the chance to see the E.T. sponge up close, Castello Branco’s got you covered. She told Gizmodo via email that the sponge is shaped like half of a ball with a couple of large openings and a single long leg, technically known as a peduncle, and lives in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. It gets its food by filtering seawater and finds bacteria “delicious!”

One of the characteristics she found most unique about the E.T. sponge was its shape and its spicules.

“I think its shape is very peculiar and characteristic but something that most people do not know about glass sponges, such as the E.T. sponge, is they have a very special skeleton made of silica ([the] same component of glass) and each species has an exclusive group of these structures with different shapes. We call them spicules and this species presents a very delicate and beautiful group of spicules,” Castello Branco said.

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The Role of Sponges in the Ecosystem

The Role of Sponges in the Ecosystem

According to Castello Branco, sponges are one of the most diverse and abundant groups of organisms on the bottom of the ocean and play a very important role in the marine ecosystem. For instance, sponges provide a refuge for many other species. They are also filter-feeding animals, which means they are capable of maintaining the balance of micro plants and animals. As if that weren’t enough, sponges play important roles in the ocean’s nitrogen and carbon cycles.

Sponges may even be capable of having an impact on human health. Castello Branco said that as sessile animals, or animals that are attached to an underwater surface and do not move around, sponges defend themselves by producing chemical compounds that may be useful in treating human diseases.

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What New Sponge Discoveries Mean

What New Sponge Discoveries Mean

Illustration for article titled When Scientists Found a Sponge That Looked Like E.T., They Named It 'Magnificent Alien'
Image: SEM image courtesy of Cristiana Castello Branco; illustration by Nick Bezio.

Castello Branco said scientists still don’t know how many species of deep-sea sponges they have left to discover, but they know it’s a big number. When scientists discover a new genus or species, they are describing the planet’s marine biodiversity, or the variety of organisms living in the ocean. All of the organisms in the ocean are interconnected, she explained, and by documenting and describing marine biodiversity, scientists are building a better understanding of marine life and the impact of humans on the ocean.

And there is no doubt that humans are having an impact.

“Despite the fact that we still have loads to learn about this environment, we (humans) are already exploiting it increasingly, with the gas and oil, mining, and fishing industries. These activities cause high impact in these habitats and their biodiversity (to a large extent still unknown to science and society),” Castello Branco told Gizmodo.

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The E.T. Sponge’s Fanbase

The E.T. Sponge’s Fanbase

Illustration for article titled When Scientists Found a Sponge That Looked Like E.T., They Named It 'Magnificent Alien'
Photo: Image courtesy of National Museum of Natural History.

As for the E.T. sponge, it’s made quite an impression on the public and the scientific world. In March, it was selected as one of the top 10 remarkable new marine species from 2020 by the World Register of Marine Species, along with the Patrick sea star (yes, it’s named for the SpongeBob Squarepants starfish), the branch-armed nostril copepod, and the giant plastic amphipod (the first time a new species has been found to have microplastic in its digestive tract).

Castello Branco said she’s thrilled by the attention her discovery has received, highlighting that taxonomy usually doesn’t get as much attention as other research lines.

“[I] think everyone has an ‘explorer’ personality inside themselves, and when people see a new species still being described, the excitement about discovering something unknown comes out with that,” she said.

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As With All Species, We Have to Think About Conservation

As With All Species, We Have to Think About Conservation

Nonetheless, if we want to make sure cool species like the E.T. sponge stick around, we have to think about conservation, especially given the climate and environmental crises facing our planet. When it comes to conservation, Castello Branco highlighted that all sponges are interconnected.

“Life is about balance, so there is not such a thing about one species being more important than another. All of them are connected in a very well-balanced system, sponges filtering water to get their food and recycling nutrients to the environment, but also providing home and better conditions to other animals,” she said.

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