Look at it. It’s not experimental modern art. It’s not some abstract diagram of an atom. It’s not a lighting fixture from the '60s. It is, in fact, something much worse than any of those things: It’s a carnivorous sponge from the midnight zone, aka the ping pong tree sponge.
Photo Credit: NSF-OOI/UW/CSSF, Dive 1739, V14
And if you’re not very careful (and you happen to be a tiny water-borne crustacean), it’s going to take hold and inexorably drag you to your doom.
Deep below the surface of the ocean (below 6,500 feet, to be precise), where the light of the sun no longer penetrates and utter darkness reigns, lies the “midnight zone.”
This abysmal subregion is where curious creatures of the shadows develop bioluminescent trickery to dazzle and confuse the unwary and the weak.
It’s where powerful pressures and plummeting temperatures prevent the profusion of all but the hardiest of nature’s creations. And it’s where the truly bizarre comes into its own.
Indeed, it’s in this nether realm, nearly 9,000 feet down, around the area of the South Eastern Pacific, we find waiting in obscurity the ping pong tree sponge (Chondrocladia lampadiglobus) ...
... an organism so curious, it looks akin to the lurid imaginings of some old school sci-fi-obsessed graphic designer.
About 20 inches tall, the suspicious-looking sponge comprises a thin, spine-like stalk with slender, ivory white branches shooting out from its crown. At the end of each of these stems is a ghostly pale orb that promises death.
These spheres are inflatable structures that the sponge strategically deploys to catch its prey.
Photo Credit: MBARI
Each one is covered in tiny hooks — called spicules — that are used like Velcro to hook onto any ill-fated passing creatures that, being too weak to resist, happen to become caught in the sponge’s fatal embrace.
As hard as the tiny captive may fight, the million hooks of the ghoulish globe hold firm. The hungry ping pong tree sponge then uses a process called phagocytosis to begin to break down the body of the unfortunate captive — typically small crustaceans — and absorb the nutrition they contain.
Phagocytosis works by the action of cells that can change their shape. Each ping pong tree sponge cell in contact with the captured crustacean sends out tiny projections — or pseudopodia — that wrap around a section of the flesh and tear it away to be absorbed and broken down.
Because sponges have no stomach — in fact no digestive or bowel system at all — they typically use water passing through their many internal channels to absorb microscopic nutrient particles and remove waste.
By reaching out with its phantom spheres and grabbing large, multi-cellular creatures to feast on, the ping pong tree sponge is just taking its dark and devilish game to the next level.