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Census of Marine Life Reveals Ocean's Hidden Treasures


Scientists involved in an unprecedented global effort to identify and catalog life in the world's oceans have presented a progress report at a meeting in Hamburg, Germany (11/29-12/1). Hundreds of researchers from more than 70 countries are now four years into a 10-year effort to create the first Census of Marine Life.

The Census database already contains 5.2 million records. Red dots on the computerized Census map represent the location of 38,000 marine species -- everything from microscopic plankton to large whales. Large patches of blue show where no samples at any depth have been recorded.

Jesse Ausubel is a program director with the Census of Marine Life for the Sloan Foundation, a leading sponsor of the computerized marine research network. "The purpose of the project is two-fold," he says. "One is assembling the known. So it is trying to collate and collect and digitize all the information about marine biology that has been collected over many decades and centuries. At the same time, the Census has these field projects that are working in the Atlantic and on the abyssal plains to collect new information."

The Census of Marine Life has already added information on 13,000 marine varieties -- including, in the past year alone, the identification of 106 new fish species and the sighting of vast, current-shaped concentrations of marine life along the ocean floor.

Jesse Ausubel says he was surprised by discoveries in the North Atlantic -- a region, he says, that "European and North American seafarers have traversed daily for 1,000 years." What he found so amazing was "the fact that we would discover these deep donuts of life, 10 kilometers in diameter, thousands of meters below us…we would find on the order of 50 new species."

The voyage that made those discoveries involved 60 scientists from 13 countries working aboard the G.O. Sars, a Norwegian vessel. Fred Grassle of Rutgers University, who chairs the Census of Marine Life International Scientific Steering Committee, says the two-month journey deployed high-tech equipment that explored the underwater mountain range dividing the North American and Eurasian plates. "The ship was equipped with acoustic survey equipment which enabled them to look at all the layers of life in the ocean throughout the water column and take trawl samples of the organisms found there," he says. "Those acoustic records themselves have revealed very unusual hydrographic features thousands of meters deep that relate to the distribution of the plankton in one particular layer. But also the collections are going to yield quite a number of new species of life, particularly the cephalopods."

Another find in the deep South Atlantic was a large collection of octopods, including one new to science. A suspected new clam that draws life from methane hydrates was documented off the coast of Chile. And a 20-centimeter worm dubbed the "purple orchid" was discovered in the mid-Atlantic.

The Census of Marine Life database is a work in progress. Its near-surface records account for 95% of all existing observations of ocean life. But, because microorganisms make up more than 90% of the ocean biomass, the Census has just initiated a project to catalog the ocean's single-celled residents.

Jesse Ausubel expects exponential growth of what he calls the information seaway. "All the different groups -- whether it is marine worms, nematodes, sponges or jellies -- they all have a place in the census," he says. "All the realms -- the abyssal plains, the trenches, the margins -- we won't only look at near shore and near the surface. Of course it is a pioneering attempt and a sampling, but I think that the Census can set a precedent and a framework." The researcher says he looks forward to efforts every ten years to add to the scientific record of the oceans

That work could bring unexpected results. Earlier this year, acoustic tags designed to follow the migration patterns in young salmon also detected a tagged green sturgeon from Northern California, some 1,000 kilometers north of its habitat. Scientists say the finding could prompt new protection strategies for the endangered fish, which is known to spawn in only a few western U.S. states.

For a closer look at the undersea world, log on to www.coml.org.

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