An Oceanic Endeavor: Marine Census Catalogs Creatures That Roam All Corners of the Seas

By Milius, Susan | Science News, October 23, 2010 | Go to article overview

An Oceanic Endeavor: Marine Census Catalogs Creatures That Roam All Corners of the Seas


Milius, Susan, Science News


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Calling a 10-year plan for ocean research a "Census of Marine Life" was from the beginning a splendid ambition, but perhaps a little loony. Scientists didn't have names for, and may never have seen, thousands of marine critters. Nor had anyone sampled 99.9 percent of the ocean volume where the knowns and unknowns might dwell.

Yet something in seawater nourishes big schemes and dreams. In 2000, researchers began collaborating in a network that has now grown to involve at least 2,700 scientists from more than 80 nations. The coalition tackled "three grand questions," in the words of Jesse Ausubel of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, an environmental scientist and cofounder of the census. The goal, as Ausubel put it, was to discover what has lived in the ocean, what lives there now and what will live there in the future.

To take on such a big task, census participants mined historical records, made more than 540 field expeditions, wrote upwards of 2,600 publications, discovered at least 1,200 new species (with more on the way), created a whale of a worldwide database for marine species records and spent $550 million.

New technologies bloomed. A novel approach to sonar gave a view wide enough to detect 250 million herring massing into a school the size of Manhattan. Tagging top predators revealed a previously unrecognized gathering point in the Pacific, dubbed the White Shark Car& And troubles loomed. Concerns over ocean resources encouraged research into the health of fishing stocks. In one dramatic report, scientists warned that unless something changes, fisheries could collapse by 2050.

Shipboard researchers collected specimens for basic taxonomy as well as for understanding patterns in past and future biodiversity. But the census portraits, a sampling of which are found on the following pages, are what really leads to oohing and ahhing over the seas' spectacles.

A newly discovered crab boasts legs covered in pale, shaggy fur. Worms waggle more head ornaments than an Easter hat and the membranes of jellyfish flutter like moths. After 10 years, a new age of discovery has barely begun.

SPINELESS MARVELS

A new species nicknamed the yeti crab looked photoshopped to a startled public when researchers first released an image (top right) of the deep-dwelling invertebrate. The specimen, belonging to the species now called Kiwa hirsuta, came from 2,228 meters down in the South Pacific. A wrap-up analysis put out by Census of Marine Life researchers concludes that most marine diversity lies not in fish but in life-forms without backbones. Other invertebrates shown include (clockwise from the yeti crab) a cuttlefish, Christmas-tree worm and soft coral.

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LIVING COLOR

Though scientists had previously described the Antarctic sea anemone Stephanthus antarcticus, they observed a living specimen with its carrot-orange color for the first time during a 2006-07 census survey. Two field projects focused on the polar oceans, where exploration has lagged because of forbidding conditions. Census researchers on their way to Antarctic study sites endured 16-meter waves, and those working on ice at the northern end of the Earth posted an armed guard to watch for polar bears.

PABLO J. LOPEZ GONZALEZ/UNIV. DE SEVLLA CAML

DEEP WORMS The deep ocean accounts for much of the living space on Planet Earth, but scientists hardly ever visit there. Given the chance to explore these regions, researchers uncovered much that was new, including this species of acorn worm. Of interest to evolutionary biologists, these creatures have a pair of gills like fish do. The worms also have head ends and tail ends, the beginnings of a vertebrate-like body plan.

COURTESY OF DAVID SHALE

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SMALL PLATES A copepod collected from the depths of the Atlantic (considerably magnified here) plays an important role in an unsung part of oceanic food webs. …

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