Jaaziel García-Hernández is a coral reef ecologist who has been studying tropical and subtropical reefs since 2008. He received a B.Sc. in Marine Science from the University of Hawai’i-Hilo and an M.Sc. in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez (UPRM). Currently, he is in the final stages of completing his doctorate degree in Biological Oceanography from the Department of Marine Sciences-UPRM. His research primarily focuses on the ecological importance of marine sponges that inhabit shallow (0-30 m depth) and deeper mesophotic coral reefs (30 – 120 m depth). Jaazi - as he is known by his friends - says that "deep down, I am a naturalist whose research interests are guided by an immense feeling of curiosity and love towards nature and the universe".
How did you become drawn to studying marine sponges?
I fell in love with sponges during a shore dive in 2009 off a beach called Leleiwi in Hilo, on the Island of Hawaii. I was absorbed by the presence of this gorgeous yellow-colored calcareous sponge (Clathrina sp., see www.hawaiisponges.com). I remember staring at her, in awe, mesmerized by the beauty of her iridescent glow. It almost appeared as if she was not only reflecting some of the sun rays that were coming through the water column, but also filtering them. I felt an instant magnetic attraction, perhaps from her micro currents pulling me in. Whatever it was, I must admit that it was at that exact moment that I knew I would focus my energy to the understanding of these mysterious animals.
In your opinion, what is the most incredible aspect of this group of organisms?
Honestly, there are way too many to mention—I can talk about sponges for hours! So hit me up if you are interested in learning more about them. But if I must choose one, it would be the fact that sponges have been on this planet for over 550 million years and have survived at least five major biological extinctions, which is mind-blowing. Recent phylogenetic analysis supports their placement at the base of the Metazoan tree, from which all other animals (including humans) have evolved from. This makes sponges (Phylum Porifera) the most ancient multicellular animals on Earth; true planetary Ents, a nickname, which in my opinion alludes to all the crucial ecological functions that sponges play in maintaining a healthy and thriving ecosystem (i.e., freshwater, marine, or deepwater habitats), since sponges provide water quality by constantly filtering and maintaining a pristine water column so that other organisms can go about their lives.
How are sponges vital to the health of our reef ecosystems?
Sponges are mainly sessile (some are mobile), water-filtering animals, composed of symbiotic microorganisms that aid the sponge in most—if not all—of its physiological processes. Although symbionts are crucial in their existence, it is the ability of the sponge to actively pump and filter water that makes them one of the most important animals in their ecosystem. Within coral reefs, for example, they are the primary entities that keep the water column clear of organic detritus and silt, allowing the precious rays of the Sun to reach the photosynthetic-dependent organisms, such as the stony corals (Order Scleractinia). Truthfully, without sponges present to maintain good water quality, especially the giant ones, such as Xestospongia muta (aka Ents of coral reefs), our coral reef ecosystems will collapse beyond our restoration capabilities.
Sponges may provide insight to the precursors of brain cells
What poses the biggest threat to marine sponges in Puerto Rico?
In order to curve the decline of coral reefs in Puerto Rico (and elsewhere), there needs to be, in my opinion, a higher emphasis on improving and maintaining water quality. Unfortunately, the only species that can help the planet is the one responsible for destroying it (Homo sapiens), so do not hold your breath. Humans are the most dangerous threat to this planetary biosphere, including coral reef ecosystems and all their inhabitants. In fact, it is unregulated human activities such as coastal development, fossil fuel emissions, pollution of rivers, nuclear waste, and eutrophication of coastal waters that have ultimately decreased water quality, turning oligotrophic systems (e.g., coral reefs), into a nutrient-rich, turbid and warm soup.
As much as it breaks my heart to say it, the demise of stony corals is eminent, one which is directly linked to water quality.
You see, stony corals—the animals responsible for creating reefs—need clear water so that sunlight can reach their photosynthetic symbionts. In short, stony corals suffer and experience stress in turbid waters, which can cause their death. As someone who spends hours observing coral reefs, efforts such as identifying coral reef pathogens and re-seeding patches of reefs with coral fragments almost seem like a futile effort if water quality keeps decreasing and ignored as a priority issue.
A good thought experiment, perhaps, in order for humans to understand this threat, would be to try to think and see themselves as a sponge. They need to imagine what it is like being a filtering sponge under the stress of polluted waters. Sadly, it is basically the equivalent of dying by asphyxiation as their incurrent pores get clogged with organic and silt detritus. If we do not address the urgent issue of water quality, then it is only a matter of time before the sponge community reaches their breaking point, a reality that we are witnessing already with stony corals.
How might our changing climate affect sponge populations in Puerto Rico?
To set the record straight, because this is a controversial topic, climate change is a natural occurrence, linked to earth’s evolution. In essence, it is an energetic extension of earth's ecosphere that extends well into the outer edges of our atmosphere. However, as a result of, our forced dependence on fossil fuels and deforestation, humans have directly affected the natural process of earth's climate change into an anthropogenic induced climate change scenario. Humans have locked the planet in a self-destructing loop where greenhouse gases continue to warm the earth, directly affecting global climate change, which has been linked to an increase in hurricane activities, the melting of icebergs, the release of methane as permafrost melts, wildfires, and increased ocean temperatures to name a few. Ultimately, if anthropogenic climate change is not aggressively dealt with, then this period in earth's history will be defined by the incompetent, selfish, and destructive behavior of the self-proclaimed “most conscious species on Earth", Homo sapiens, the "wise man”, or “the double thinking ape” as Terence McKenna would ironically say.
Tell us about your favorite moment, discovery, or breakthrough during your research on sponges.
My favorite aspect of studying marine sponges is not based on the "discoveries" or "breakthroughs" that I have made (none actually). What I really enjoy about interacting with sponges is that they truly emit an aura of mutual aid and cooperation, not competition or survival of the fittest as promoted by the Darwinist. How do I know this? By spending hundreds of hours underwater, observing them and documenting their behavior. This is a side of sponges that never gets recognized. They are indeed, an oasis of biodiversity, entities who have, for millions of years, focused on promoting symbiotic relationships and cooperation over intra- and interspecific competition. Here, my views of our natural world align themselves with those of Janie Wulff, Peter Kropotkin, and Terence McKenna. Indeed, this is the angle that most fascinates me about sponges, attempting to understand how sponges directly influence and shape their ecosystem, like providing space and a substrate for an array of diverse organisms to live on. So, when a 2,000-year-old Caribbean giant barrel sponge (Xestospongia muta) dies as a result of “X-tissue wasting disease” or “X-tissue hardening condition” (see jaazielgarciahernandez.com), the reef not only loses an important filtering biological entity, it also loses hundreds of species that depend on the sponge to survive. I think about this every time I see a dying and diseased X. muta. On a personal level, I am infinitely thankful for all the beautiful people—mentors, friends, and colleagues—that I have met and interacted with because of our shared love of sponges. I am also grateful towards sponges because I have also had the privilege to represent them at international scientific conferences, travel the world conducting field research, and for expanding my consciousness. I’m just another nature warrior fighting for the right of sponges to happily live on this planet, just like any other being.
If interest in my work arises, please visit my personal website at jaazielgarciahernandez.com.
"In order to curve the decline of coral reefs in Puerto Rico (and elsewhere), there needs to be, in my opinion, a higher emphasis on improving and maintaining water quality."