Diversity, Beauty of Marine Life Charted in First Global Census

LONDON, UK, October 5, 2010 (ENS) – Marine explorers from more than 80 countries have issued the first global Census of Marine Life, the result of a decade of scientific exploration.

Discoveries made during the Census raised the estimate of known marine species from about 230,000 to nearly 250,000.

Among the millions of specimens collected in both familiar and seldom-explored waters, the Census found more than 6,000 potentially new species and completed formal descriptions of more than 1,200 of them. It found that species once thought to be rare are, in fact, common.

Taken near Cape Town, South Africa, this photo shows a newly discovered species of shrimp, Hippolyte catagrapha, and a new species of Myzostomid, the yellow creature beneath the shrimp. (Photo by Guido Zsilavecz-SURG, all photos courtesy Census of Marine Life)

In one of the largest scientific collaborations ever conducted, more than 2,700 Census scientists spent over 9,000 days at sea on more than 540 expeditions, plus countless days in labs and archives.

They have produced an unprecedented picture of the diversity, distribution, and abundance of all kinds of marine life – from microbes to whales, from the icy poles to the warm tropics, from tidal near shores to the deepest dark depths.

“All surface life depends on life inside and beneath the oceans. Sea life provides half of our oxygen and a lot of our food and regulates climate. We are all citizens of the sea,” said Dr. Ian Poiner of Australia, who chaired the Census Steering Committee.

“And while much remains unknown, including at least 750,000 undiscovered species and their roles, we are better acquainted now with our fellow travelers and their vast habitat on this globe,” he said.

A highlights summary that encapsulates the decade of discovery, as well as maps and three books were released Monday in London.

The Census is documented in books and journals, databases and websites, videos, and photo galleries. Over the decade more than 2,600 academic papers were published – one, on average, every 1.5 days.

The diversity of marine life is documented by nearly 30 million observations of 120,000 species organized in the global marine life database of the Census, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, OBIS.

Based on these millions of observations, the Census compiled the first regional and global comparisons of marine species diversity.

It helped to create the first comprehensive list of the known marine species, already passing 190,000 in September 2010, and also helped to compose web pages for more than 80,000 of them in the Encyclopedia of Life.

Gray reef shark and blacktip shark hover over pristine coral reef at Malden Island, Southern Line Islands, Kiritabi (Photo by Enric Sala)

The Census establishes a baseline against which to measure changes caused by climate or oil spills. New species were discovered, marine highways mapped, and new species as well as diminished abundance was documented.

The Census proved new technology, such as DNA barcoding for the identification of marine life. It arrayed microphones from California past Canada to Alaska to pioneer a global ocean tracking network for animals, invented Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures to standardize global assessment of reef life, and fostered acoustic systems to measure abundances over tens of thousands of square kilometers. Together, these technologies show that the developing Global Ocean Observing System can observe life as well as water temperature and waves.

Myriam Sibuet of France, vice-chair of the Scientific Steering Committee said, “The Census enlarged the known world. Life astonished us everywhere we looked. In the deep sea we found luxuriant communities despite extreme conditions.”

“The discoveries of new species and habitats both advanced science and inspired artists with their extraordinary beauty,” said Sibuet. “Some newly discovered marine species have even entered popular culture, like the yeti crab painted on skateboards.”

Yet there is much that is still unknown. After all its work, the Census still could not reliably estimate the total number of species, the kinds of life, known and unknown, in the ocean.

But it logically extrapolated to at least a million kinds of marine life that earn the rank of species and to tens or even hundreds of millions of kinds of microbes.

Swimming sea cucumber seen 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) deep in the Philippines’ Celebes Sea (Photo by Laurence Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The Census found living creatures everywhere, even where heat would melt lead, seawater froze to ice, and light and oxygen were lacking. It expanded known habitats and ranges in which life is known to exist. It found that in marine habitats, extreme is normal.

Census scientists found that the causes separating the known, unknown, and unknowable about marine life fall into five categories: the invisibility of the lost past, the vast expanse of the oceans, difficulties of assembling knowledge of parts into knowledge of a whole, blinders we put on ourselves by choosing not to learn or spend, and unpredictable disturbances such as tsunamis.

Yet much previously unknown information is now accessible to all. The OBIS directory of names and addresses of known ocean species establishes a reference against which humanity can monitor 21st century change. It also delineates the vast areas of ocean that have never been explored.

The Census was initiated in 2000 through the efforts of Fred Grassle of Rutgers University, New Jersey, and Jesse Ausubel of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, New York. A 10-year deadline to accomplish their work was chosen.

During its decade the Census grew to a $650 million global exploration, involving over 670 institutions and more than 10 times the original 250 collaborators.

Grassle said Monday, “The Census has helped pour the foundation for the ‘e-Biosphere,’ a massive, comprehensive virtual observatory of world biodiversity now under construction. OBIS and related rich initiatives like the Encyclopedia of Life, Barcode of Life initiative, and Google Earth pool environmental observations, specimen data, and experimental results into a global commons to enhance dramatically our ability to understand Earth’s life.”

Ausubel said, “The Census encountered an ocean growing more crowded with commerce and transparent through technology. Setting out to draw baselines of the diversity, distribution, and abundance of species, the first Census of Marine Life documented a changing ocean, richer in diversity, more connected through distribution and movements, more impacted by humans, and yet less explored than we had known.”

“We prevailed over early doubts that a Census was possible, as well as daunting extremes of nature,” said Poiner. “This cooperative international 21st century voyage has systematically defined for the first time both the known and the vast unknown, unexplored ocean.”

“The Age of Discovery continues,” Poiner declared.

More than 300 leaders of the Census community are meeting in London through Thursday at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Royal Society, and Natural History Museum to share their results and consider the implications.

A sequel to the Census will be explored during the London meetings and at the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity next September in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Partners of the Census included government agencies concerned with science, environment, and fisheries, navies, private philanthropic foundations, corporations, research institutions, universities, natural history museums, aquariums, and intergovernmental and international nongovernmental organizations and programs. Many of the partners and sponsors are listed at www.comlsecretariat.org/about/partners-and-sponsors.

The Census of Marine Life introduces:

First Census of Marine Life 2010: Highlights of a Decade of Discovery (CoML, 64 pages), edited by Jesse H. Ausubel, Darlene Trew Crist and Paul E. Waggoner. Click here for the highlights summary:

The highlights summary draws from the three books officially launched October 4, 2010:

Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count(Cambridge University Press, 304 pages), by Paul V.R. Snelgrove, an overview of Census insights and their implications online at: http://coml.org/discoveries-census-marine-life

Life in the World’s Oceans: Diversity, Distribution, and Abundance(Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 384 pages), Alasdair D. McIntyre (editor), a summary of findings and discoveries by the 17 Census projects online at: http://coml.org/life-worlds-oceans

Citizens of the Sea: Wondrous Creatures from the Census of Marine Life,(National Geographic, 216 pages), by Nancy Knowlton, portraits of about 100 species, online at: http://coml.org/citizens-sea

Also released:

A National Geographic Society map, depicting the Census’ work showing “Ocean Life: Diversity, Distribution, and Abundance” on one side and “Ocean Life: Past, Present and Future” on the other

New scientific reports from the Census of Marine Life added to the new open access Collections and Biodiversity Hub of the Public Library of Science, online at: http://ploscollections.org/coml

And on Oct. 6: A song, “Look to the Sea,”contributed by singer/composer Maryann Camilleri; musician Jerry Harrison, formerly of the Talking Heads; and engineer David Dennison, responsible for numerous recordings of Jerry Garcia, with accompanying video by National Geographic Television / Digital Media available for free download at 8 pm GMT October 6. It joins a range of works of art including paintings, sculpture, films, and photography by many international artists inspired by the Census.

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