The "Sponges of the British Isles" has evolved from several years project work by members of the Marine Conservation Society. It had often been the shared experience among sublittoral ecologists, especially in the South of England, that whilst sponges are very important in sublittoral communities no readily available text illustrated living animals. All the literature which is relevant is scattered through the world’s journals and is written in many languages, especially English, Danish, French and German. The descriptions of the species are based largely on Museum material which has been collected either on the sea shore or by dredge, and was often preserved and dry when described. SCUBA diving and underwater photography had created the possibility of linking in situ photographs and descriptions of the species with their scientific names, making it possible to begin to collect information on distributions, habitat preferences and abundance for the species. It was against this background that the initial project was born.

The first project co-ordinator, David Guiterman, became interested in sponges in 1973, and over successive years with grants from the Royal Society and the BS-AC and the encouragement of one of the authors (Shirley Stone) established a working knowledge of sponge material from a wide variety of sites around the coast of the British Isles. Following a meeting between the MCS (then Underwater Conservation Society) projects co-ordinator, Bob Earll, and another of the authors (Graham Ackers) at the Plymouth British Sub-Aqua Club AGM in 1978, it was decided to explore further the possibilities of producing an accessible collection of sponge photographs, for it seemed likely that a number of common British species of sponge could be recognised from good photographs of living material backed up by diagnostic notes. To this end a meeting was held at Bristol University in June 1978 and this succeeded in bringing together a guide and photographs which covered 16 sponge species using 22 photographs. The work of the project coordinator was supported during 1978 by grants from the NCC and BS-AC and further sponge material was collected from SW Ireland and the Menai Straits. A second meeting was held in Bristol in January 1979 which expanded the guide to cover 26 species/entities using 42 colour photographs, and a second edition of the guide was produced. This became known colloquially as "SPONGE I".

During 1979 the work was aided by a further grant from the Royal Society. A second meeting was held in Bristol in October 1979 and it was resolved to meet once a year, and update and amend the guide on an annual basis.

For the 1980 diving season a revised and expanded text was produced, together with the addition of some new species, to prevent confusion with closely related similar species.

In 1981, David Guiterman stood down as project co-ordinator having successfully launched the project and consolidated the mini print/species list format. His place was taken jointly by Bob Earll and one of the authors (Dave Moss), and the 1981 package was launched with a significant change in emphasis. Originally, the package was viewed as a "recognition guide", with the mini prints giving clues as to the identity of a sponge. It outlined possibilities and suggested the degree of confidence that survey ecologists could place on both the names and identity of prominent sublittoral species, based on appearance alone. In 1981, it was decided that the package would become a much more broadly based identification guide, with a view to coordinating efforts on all fronts to increase our knowledge of sponge identification. Sheets were produced for a further 6 species, and an additional 22 mini prints were produced. For the first time, some reddish-brown encrusting forms were included. The 1981 package was known as "SPONGE II".

The work for 1982 was formulated at a meeting of the working group at the Natural History Museum in November 1981. Bob Earll stepped down as one of the co-ordinators, and his place was taken by Graham Ackers. Behind the scenes the project was being steered by a working group consisting of Frances Dipper, Bob Earll, Bernard Picton and Shirley Stone, plus the then two project co-ordinators Graham Ackers and Dave Moss. The resulting package, "SPONGE III" was issued in 1982, with the addition of 18 new species, 42 new mini-prints, and numerous revisions to the text. Furthermore, participation was encouraged in two "sub-projects", one covering the "Haliclona's", and another the geographical distribution of British sponges in addition to the main project centred around the Sponge Recording Form. Two sponge workshops were held, one in June 1983 at Menai Bridge, and the other in June 1984 in South Devon.

The working group held further meetings in December 1982 and June 1983, from which emerged  "SPONGE IV".

2.             "SPONGE IV"

The "SPONGE III" package proved difficult to assemble for a variety of reasons. These problems were addressed in "SPONGE IV", which was completely rewritten, and so superseded all previous texts. Five new species were included - Thymosia guernei, Terpios fugax, Adreus fascicularis, Aplysilla sulfurea and Halisarca dujardini, and 22 new mini-prints were added covering these, as well as some previously included species. Furthermore, the process of "splitting" some of the Calcarea was started, and separate species sheets were produced for some of the "Haliclona’s". The glossary, classification, techniques, and bibliographical information were expanded. A new addition was a "Table of Species Characteristics" which may facilitate species recognition. Finally, an alphabetical Index of all species names and technical terms was supplied for the first time.


The 1989 fire at MCS headquarters which destroyed the offices and their contents unfortunately resulted in the destruction of stocks of text and miniprint internegatives used in previous editions of this guide. BEP, RGA and DM had already begun work on a supplement to "SPONGE IV" intending to add as many new species as could be adequately characterised from newly collected and photographed material. This supplement was intended to cover only the new species sheets and miniprints together with an index to allow it to be added to existing"SPONGE IV" copies. In the summer of 1990 the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) generously gave funds to employ Christine Morrow to transfer the old "SPONGE IV" text to a word-processor and prepare new drawings of spicules from spicule preparations of recently collected material in the collections of the Ulster Museum. The new spicule drawings were prepared either by tracing from scanning electron microscope (SEM) photographs taken specially at the Electron Microscope unit, Queen’s University Belfast, or by using a drawing tube on a light microscope, and are therefore far more accurate than previous illustrations in these guides. The spicule preparations were also used to make measurements of spicules which are quoted in this edition as eg. 120-(210)-300µ, this being the range and average of ten spicules measured at random. Sizes outside this range do occur, if mentioned elsewhere in the literature, they are given in quotes eg. "100-350µ". However the authors feel that these figures are often given on the basis of material from outside the British Isles which may not always be conspecific and extremes of sizes are not always meaningful. The text and graphics for this edition were combined using desktop publishing software on an IBM compatible PC. The voucher specimens, slides and SEM photographs are stored in the Ulster Museum and referenced in this guide by catalogue numbers with the prefix BELUM : Mc. (eg. "BELUM : Mc138").

A new set of photographs was assembled from the far wider choice available in 1990 without the constraints of re-using the previous miniprints. Wherever possible photographs supported by voucher specimens have been used and are referred to by catalogue numbers in this guide. Experience with in situ observation of sponges enabled a more representative choice of photographs without the duplication which had arisen in the past and this helped keep the cost of the latest edition down. Additionally the text was made more authoritative in many places where more confidence had been gained with field characters. The text was fully revised to incorporate new information on intra-species variability, habitats and distribution in particular. The classification was revised in accordance with the latest information and a list of British sponges compiled for the MCS Species Directory (Howson, C.M., 1987) has been incorporated in place of the classification section of "SPONGE IV". The text and graphics are now stored on computer disk which will  facilitate production of further editions.

In 2007 the text was reset in Adobe InDesign and photographs incorporated so that the document could be distributed as a PDF file. This work was carried out mainly by Christine Morrow with assistance from Bernard Picton. Where possible the original photographs were rescanned from slides. The classified species list was revised in accordance with Systema Porifera, 2002. Christine was sponsored by Countryside Council for Wales and JNCC to carry out this work and to transfer the contents of this guide to a website. The work was refereed by MarLIN.

4.             THE SPECIES SHEETS

In one case (Myxilla  cf. rosacea) there are doubts over the species name, and in several cases more than one species may be involved. These difficulties serve to emphasise that the information in all the species sheets must be treated with caution, and is subject to change. It is inherent in the study of sponges that exceptions are encountered soon after a character, or some ecological data, was thought to have been fixed! Many of the sheets may turn out to describe specimens rather than species for which a whole series of specimens is required. On the other hand it is apparent that many undescribed species are to be found in British waters and differences which have been put down to intra-specific variability in the past may actually indicate the existence of complexes of similar or sibling species. The work on Suberites ficus  in the Isle of Man using enzyme electrophoresis forces a re-examination of classical taxonomic techniques relying mostly on spicule morphology (Solé-Cava & Thorpe, 1986). As a convention in the sheets, quotation marks " " indicate a quotation from the literature which has not been verified by the authors, rather than a recent observation. Confirmation or refutation of such information will be valuable.

5.             FEEDBACK REQUIRED

From the above comments it can be seen that this is very much a working document, and new information is eagerly sought. Any information should be sent to Bernard Picton (address on contact page) who will also be prepared to give advice and supply recording sheets.

5.1.          Collection and Recording of Specimens. The methods are described in the Techniques section. It is frequently the total absence of habitat information from the traditional records which makes an understanding of sponge taxonomy so difficult. This is clearly one area where diving and shore observations are very valuable. Information so collected can be incorporated into future versions of this Guide. This Guide also lays emphasis on external characters visible in living sponges, and underwater photography of living sponges in situ is strongly recommended.

5.2.          Verification of the Guide. Information is urgently required at two levels. Firstly, comments on the general layout and accuracy of the whole text including the species sheets. Secondly, it is of paramount importance for the authors to know how easy or difficult it is found to use the Guide for provisional identification of sponges. Criticisms will help to improve the style of the descriptions in future editions.

5.3.          Photographs. Photography is invaluable as a record of the living sponge, and its habitat. The authors would be pleased to receive good photographs of sponges, preferably where a voucher specimen exists, for possible inclusion in future editions.

5.4.          Observations. These would be welcomed from any part of the British Isles to extend our geographical distribution records. Due to the difficulties of identification records should be supported by good photographs, and/or voucher specimens. The North Sea coasts are particularly in need of investigation.

5.5.          The ‘Haliclona’s Although some progress has been made with this difficult group, information is still required - see sub-section 5 of the Classification section for details.

5.6.          Other specialisations. To advance the Guide further some degree of specialisation may be required. The authors would be pleased to hear from anyone who might be interested in looking into the Calcarea, Suberitidae, Cliona spp., Halichondria spp., Hymeniacidon sp., Myxilla spp., Hymedesmia spp., or Microciona spp. in more detail. Also anyone interested in looking at particular habitat niches, such as the sponges occurring on Chlamys and Aequipecten valves.

6.             ROLES OF THE AUTHORS

The principal roles of the authors were as follows.

R.G. Ackers       General editorial. Assemblage of current mini-prints. Revision of non-species sections. Some contribution to species descriptions.

D. Moss         General editorial. Production of "SPONGE IV". Detailed editorial of, and some contribution to, species descriptions.

B.E. Picton        Major contribution to species descriptions and classification. Supply of the majority of mini-prints. Preparation and supervision of spicule and skeletal drawings. Editorial and final preparation of "SPONGE V" text and illustrations.

S.M.K. Stone     Major contribution to species descriptions, classification and glossary. Chief technical adviser.

C.C. Morrow Preparation of spicule preparations, SEM photographs, text and drawings for SPONGE V. Preparation of 2007 edition and updating of nomenclature to agree with Systema Porifera, 2002.


The authors would like to thank the following people for their contributions to this Guide.

Bob Earll, for considerably advancing the project in 1981, offering much helpful advice and encouragement, and contributing to the Table of Species Characteristics.

David Guiterman, who originally founded the project, and some of whose work remains in this edition.

W. Clifford-Jones, for writing several species sheets, supplying mini-prints, and for his interest and encouragement.

Rob van Soest, for helpful comments on "SPONGE III".

Wallie de Weerdt, for help with the Haplosclerids.

Christine Morrow, for preparation of spicule preparations, SEM photographs, text and drawings for SPONGE V.

Roger Telford, for help with computer imaging and other facilities in production of "SPONGE V".

Jim McRae and the staff at  Queen’s University Electron Microscope Unit for help with SEM photography for spicule details in "SPONGE V".

The production of the 2007 edition and transfer of the contents of this guide to a website, was sponsored by Countryside Council for Wales and JNCC and refereed by MarLIN. We would like to thank Rohan Holt, Keith Hiscock and Guy Baker for facilitating this.

There are a number of other people who have contributed in some way to the Guide; most are acknowledged in appropriate places in the text.

 Picton, B.E., Morrow, C.C. & van Soest, R.W.B., 2007. [In] Sponges of Britain and Ireland