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Meet SpongeBob at the Academy & Learn
SAN FRANCISCO (February 2, 2005) - The unlikely star of a television series and full-length movie, SpongeBob Squarepants is a porous, yellow sea sponge whose underwater adventures delight kids of all ages. Although he normally resides in the oceanic town of Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob will soon be making a trip to San Francisco. On February 21, a towering, inflatable SpongeBob will pay a two-week visit to some of his aquatic friends at the Academy's Steinhart Aquarium. He will be stationed next to the Touch Tidepool, where a tank full of familiar animals - including sea stars just like his best friend Patrick Star - will keep him company.
Although most people think of sponges just as cleaning tools, they are actually also aquatic animals. Among the oldest of multi-celled animals on Earth, sponges have no brains, muscles, or digestive tracts. Still, they can perform feats that would be considered amazing in higher animals. Sponges feed themselves by pumping water through their bodies, trapping plankton and other small delicacies in their tissues. Amazingly efficient, they can pump several hundred gallons of water through their filtration systems in a 24 hour period. Like the "Blob" of the 1958 Steve McQueen movie, they can regenerate their bodies from small bits of tissue, even after being squeezed through mesh. They can outcompete and outlive competitors (some live for over 500 years). They can even repair their own wounds, send electrical signals, change their shape, and produce the building blocks of possible anti-cancer drugs.
Close to 10,000 sponge species populate the underwater world. Some are hollow globular structures that are big enough for a diver to hide in. Others are bouquets of hollow tubes. Still others are mere incrustations on rocks, shells or blades of sea grass. The soft brown sponges that adorn well-appointed kitchens and bathrooms are actually chunks of an ocean sponge's skeleton, bereft of other tissue. (Cheap supermarket sponges, however, are usually made of cellulose derived from plants.)
Unable to hide from predators, sponges keep predators at bay by exuding noxious chemicals. The secretions may also help them in turf battles with competitors and aid in keeping their own bodies free of harmful parasites. Medical researchers are now trying to understand the workings of these chemicals. Secretions from sponges are already being tested as anti-cancer and anti-viral treatments. They may soon be used, too, to keep protein deposits from building up on implants like pacemakers and catheters.
Not all marine animals find sponges to be inhospitable neighbors. Tiny shrimp, polyps, shellfish and fish may pass their entire lives inside a sponge, feeding from the endless water flow while concealed from predators, apparently without harming their host. Some hermit crabs tear off a bit of sponge tissue and hold it against their hairy backs until the remnant becomes fixed in place. In time, the sponge grows larger and larger until it engulfs the crab's shell. For the crab, the advantage of hauling this ever-growing bio-appendage around is concealment. Meanwhile, the sponge gets a free ride and new feeding grounds.
Visitors to the Academy between February 21 and March 7 will get the chance to learn spongy facts like these while meeting the nine-foot tall Nickelodeon character. After his visit to the Academy ends, the inflatable SpongeBob will be auctioned off. Proceeds will benefit education and research at the California Academy of Sciences.
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