For their study, Ludeman and Leys used a variety of drugs to elicit sneezes in freshwater sponges and observed the process using fluorescent dye—all recorded using time-lapse video. Their efforts focused on the sponge’s osculum, which controls water exiting the organism, including water expelled during a sneeze.
Through a series of lab experiments, the pair discovered that ciliated cells lining the osculum play a role in triggering sneezes. In other animals, cilia function like antennae, helping cells respond to stimuli in a co-ordinated manner. In the sponge, their localized presence in the osculum and their sensory function suggest the osculum is in fact a sensory organ.
“For a sponge to have a sensory organ is totally new. This does not appear in a textbook; this doesn’t appear in someone’s concept of what sponges are permitted to have,” said Leys.