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Marine census shows ocean life “richer” than expected

Oct. 4, 2010
Courtesy of the Census of Marine LIfe
and World Science staff

A ten-year ef­fort by ma­rine ex­plor­ers from more than 80 coun­tries has led to the first glob­al Cen­sus of Ma­rine Life, the most com­plete pic­ture yet of the oceans’ bio­divers­ity, sci­en­tists an­nounced Oct. 4.

The tube-dwell­ing ane­mone lives in a mu­cous tube on the mud­dy bot­toms of coast­al wa­ters, es­tu­aries, and soft sea­beds in trop­i­cal and sub­trop­i­cal wa­ters. When the anem­o­ne is threat­ened, it re­tracts in­to its tube for pro­tec­tion. The beau­ti­ful sting­ing ten­ta­cles vary from a vi­brant pur­ple to a creamy brown. (Pho­to: Ka­ren Gow­lett-Holmes)


More than 2,700 re­search­ers work­ing with the Cen­sus proj­ect spent over 9,000 days at sea on more than 540 ex­pe­di­tions, plus “count­less days in labs and archives,” the or­gan­iz­a­tion, head­quar­tered at the Uni­vers­ity of Rho­de Is­land, said in a state­ment.

Mem­bers said the find­ings show that ocean life is even richer and more di­verse than wide­ly im­agined.

The cen­sus cat­a­logued nearly 30 mil­lion ob­serva­t­ions of 120,000 spe­cies or­ganized in a database called the Ocean Bi­o­ge­o­gra­phic In­forma­t­ion Sys­tem. The sys­tem con­tains a di­rec­to­ry of the names and home ranges of known ocean spe­cies. It al­so de­lin­eates the vast ar­eas of ocean that have nev­er been ex­plored. 

“We pre­vailed over early doubts that a Cen­sus was pos­si­ble, as well as daunt­ing ex­tremes of na­ture,” said Aus­tral­ian Ian Poiner, chair of the Cen­sus Steer­ing Com­mit­tee. “The Age of Disco­very con­tin­ues.” 

This spect­a­cular jelly­fish in­hab­its the wat­er of the Great Bar­rier Reef off Liz­ard Is­land, Queens­land, Aus­tral­ia. (Gary Cran­itch, Queens­land Mu­se­um)


The beau­ty, won­der, and im­por­tance of ma­rine life are hard to overstate, Poiner added. “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. 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.” 

A new spe­cies, the kelp Au­reo­phycus aleu­ti­cus (Max K. Ho­berg, In­sti­tute of Ma­rine Sci­ence, Uni­ver­sity of Al­as­ka Fair­banks)


Be­gun in 2000, the Cen­sus (www.coml.org) grew to a $650 mil­lion glob­al ex­plora­t­ion, in­volv­ing over 670 in­sti­tu­tions and more than 10 times the orig­i­nal 250 col­la­bo­ra­tors. The Cen­sus reached its to­tal of 17 proj­ects in 2005. 

More than 300 lead­ers of the Cen­sus group are meet­ing Oct. 4 through 7 in Lon­don at the Roy­al In­sti­tu­tion of Great Brit­ain, the Roy­al So­ci­e­ty, and Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Mu­se­um to share the re­sults and dis­cuss their im­plica­t­ions. 

The di­rec­to­ry es­tab­lishes a base­line through which fu­ture dam­age to or re­stor­ations of ma­rine ecosys­tems can be gauged, re­search­ers said.

The project also generated an array of beau­tiful photo­graphs of sea crea­tures, some of them new to sci­ence.

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A ten-year effort by marine explorers from more than 80 countries has led to the first global Census of Marine Life, the most complete picture yet of the oceans’ biodiversity, scientists announced Monday. More than 2,700 researchers working with the Census project spent over 9,000 days at sea on more than 540 expeditions, plus “countless days in labs and archives,” the organization, headquartered at the University of Rhode Island, said in a statement. Members said the findings show that ocean life is even richer and more diverse than previously known. The census catalogued nearly 30 million observations of 120,000 species organized in a database called the Ocean Biogeographic Information System. The system contains a directory of the names and home ranges of known ocean species. It also delineates the vast areas of ocean that have never been explored. “We prevailed over early doubts that a Census was possible, as well as daunting extremes of nature,” said Australian Ian Poiner, chair of the Census Steering Committee. “The Age of Discovery continues.” The beauty, wonder, and importance of marine life are hard to overstate, Poiner added. “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. 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.” Begun in 2000, the Census grew to a $650 million global exploration, involving over 670 institutions and more than 10 times the original 250 collaborators. The Census reached its total of 17 projects in 2005. More than 300 leaders of the Census group are meeting Oct. 4 through 7 in London at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Royal Society, and Natural History Museum to share the results and discuss their implications. The directory establishes a baseline through which future damage to or improvements to marine ecosystems can be gauged, researchers said.