While marine researchers exploring an underwater mountain off the United States’ East Coast, they spotted a yellow sea sponge and pink sea star that resemble a certain SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star, the iconic duo from the Nickelodeon cartoon series, “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Scientists spotted the marine animals with a remotely operated deep-sea vehicle (ROV) as it zoomed around the Atlantic Ocean’s Retriever Seamount, exploring the area’s ecosystem.
The ROVs are part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) latest deep-sea project called the 2021 North Atlantic Stepping Stones: New England and Corner Rise Seamounts expedition. NOAA designed the mission to obtain more data on the poorly studied deepwater areas off the eastern U.S. coast while aboard the research vessel Okeanos Explorer.
During the expedition, marine scientists—located both onshore and at sea—mapped the ocean floor and observed regions along with the New England and Corner Rise Seamounts for the first time. The team used ROVs to survey depths ranging from 820 to 13,124 feet below the surface. A total of 25 ROV dive missions collected details on deep-sea coral, sponge communities, other marine life, and the underwater mountains.
After reviewing footage from the Retriever Seamount, starfish expert Christopher Mah spotted the sea sponge and sea star and quickly shared the image on Twitter. Mah is a marine biologist at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
“I thought it would be funny to make the comparison, which for once was actually kind of comparable to the iconic images/colors of the cartoon characters,” Mah said. “As a biologist who specializes in sea stars, most depictions of Patrick and SpongeBob are incorrect.”
Sea sponges have called the ocean their home for the last 600 million years and consist of 8,500 different species, each varying in shape, color, and textures. However, none are square-shaped like the character SpongeBob. The yellow sponge seen on the Retriever Seamount belongs to the genus Hertwigia. Upon seeing the sponge, Mah was surprised to see its bright yellow hue because deep-sea creatures are usually orange or white to aid in blending into their environments.
The starfish seen sitting idly by the sponge belongs to the genus Chondraster. These sea stars can be various shades of pink or white. They use their five arms riddled with mini suckers to scoot around the ocean floor. While Spongebob and Patrick are friends in the animated world, the relationship between sea stars and sponges is not as friendly in real life. Sea stars are carnivores and they are known to prey on sea sponges, crabs, oysters, clams, and coral.
Both the starfish and sponge shown in the image live in a deep-sea habitat where no light penetrates. Instead of living in the tropical-like city of Bikini Bottom depicted in the TV series, their actual environment more closely resembles the deep-sea trench shown in the show called Rock Bottom.
Despite being hidden by a cloak of darkness, the Retriever Seamount is teeming with diverse sea life. Previous NOAA expeditions have recorded various sponge and deep-sea coral communities at the bottom of the ocean. With each new dive, the NOAA builds knowledge and reveals further info about the seafloor. While the expedition took place from June 30 and wrapped up on July 29, the data will contribute to the NOAA’s Atlantic Seafloor Partnership for Integrated Research and Exploration (ASPIRE), a program focused on studying the North Atlantic.