Census of Marine Life

The Census of Marine Life, a project started in 2000, is a global effort to identify and catalogue every species in the world’s oceans. Researchers are building a registry of every form of marine life, mapping where the species live and travel, and determining past, present, and expected future populations for each species. The decade-long, USD 650-million project is expected to be completed next year.

According to the L.A. Times, there have already been some intriguing discoveries: “Some bluefin tuna migrate between Los Angeles and Yokohama, Japan; one tagged tuna crossed the Pacific three times in a year. White sharks forage even farther for food, commuting between Australia and South Africa. Some turtles circumnavigate the Pacific, paddling from Baja to Borneo. And a gray-headed albatross — a member of the world’s most threatened family of birds — stunned researchers when it raced around the globe in 46 days flat.” 

The Census of Marine Life teams have gone on around 400 ocean expeditions, says the L.A. Times. Furthermore, more than 2,000 scientists from 80 countries are involved in the research, which involves “deep-sea robots, laser-based radar and super-sensitive sonar.” During the expeditions, more than 5,600 new species have been discovered, some in the most inhabitable places — extremely deep or highly salty water. “The abyssal plains, the inky-black, featureless ocean floor that covers more than half the planet, are not barren, lifeless deserts. The proof came when scientists used fine-mesh sieves to trawl nearly three miles down. To their surprise, they scooped up tens of thousands of swimming snails, worms and other tiny invertebrates in almost every net. Many had never been seen before.”

The census is also coding the smallest organisms, including bacteria and archaea, or single-celled microorganisms. According to the L.A. Times, scientists believe tiny organisms play an important role in carbon and nitrogen cycles. Paul Snelgrove, an oceanographer from Memorial University of Newfoundland, said: “Those microbes do a lot of the things that keep the Earth humming along.”

Researchers are also looking into human impact on the ocean environment. Through examining old customs records and captains’ logbooks, census researchers found that fisherman in the Gulf of Maine “hooked 20 times more cod in 1860 than commercial fleets do today.” The evidence points to the fact that people have reduced many fish populations.

By next year, the online database will include photos, DNA codes, and Web sites for 230,000 unique species, including 16,000 species of fish. As part of the process, scientists have pruned some 50,000 aliases from the lists. The same marine animal may have a number of names. “The worst case of multiple identity was a breadcrumb sponge, Halichondria panacea, which had 56 names around the world. Now it will have one.”

Read the article and images, and also see more ocean maps.

Go to the Census of Marine Life Web site.

Image explanation / credit: An area of concentrated activity between Hawaii and the Baja peninsula, known as the “White Shark Café” is revealed by 47 white sharks equipped with satellite tags. Image: TOPP / Center for Marine Life

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