Marine Life Census Finds Hundreds of New Species
WASHINGTON, DC, October 23, 2003 (ENS) - New marine fish species are being logged at an average rate of three per week by scientists from 53 countries engaged in the first Census of Marine Life. The first census report was launched today at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington as a baseline against which to measure future discoveries.
The 10 year, $1 billion global scientific collaboration aims to identify and catalog all life in the oceans. After their first three years of work, census scientists report over 15,300 species of fish in the sea and estimate 5,000 more are still unknown to science.
Since 2000, fish scientists, known as icthyologists, have added about 600 species to the catalog of marine fishes. Neither the sciences of collecting new species nor those of validating them have slowed. "The fishing hole of unknown large, edible marine organisms is not exhausted," the census report states.
An average of 1,700 other animals and numerous marine plants are also being catalogued each year.
From whales to bacteria, census scientists estimate that 210,000 marine life forms of all types are currently known to science, but the total in existence may be up to 10 times that number.
“This is the start of the first great voyage of discovery of the 21st Century,” said J. Frederick Grassle of Rutgers University, Chair of the Census of Marine Life Scientific Committee. “More importantly, it begins the first systematic global effort to measure our oceans’ vital signs, and guide what must be done to reverse their decline.”
The census of marine life logically divides itself into two tasks, learning what once lived in the oceans and projecting what will live there, divided by the watershed task of learning what lives in the oceans today.
The scientists are using new technology to enable their discoveries. The first report, written by census chief scientist Dr. Ronald O’Dor, says, "Sea lions carrying telemetry devices and tankers towing plankton recorders ally themselves with marine scientists. Video cameras photograph unknown giants deep in the sea, and luminescence reveals both the shape of marine organisms and their spectral signatures."
Attached to the dorsal fins of three species of Pacific sharks are electronic tags that regularly communicate with satellites, enabling documentation of migration patterns. Similar technology has recorded trans-Pacific migrations of bluefin tuna. These fish, sharks, turtles and elephant seals are helping census researchers record and report the vertical structure of the vast oceans.
"The speed and economy of reading genomes - spinoffs from human genome sequencing - make the identification of species by the series of compounds on a gene similar to scanning a barcode in a market," O'Dor writes.
Our knowledge of the oceans is growing quickly. A generation ago, writes O'Dor, we did not know that hot vents oozed on the ocean floor into unique fauna and flora or that great squids swam far below drilling platforms.
"The enormous diversity of marine life is not only a crucial indicator of the condition of our oceans, it is key to sustaining them in a healthy state,” he said.
In this generation people have begun to visualize the oceans before fishing. "We can now see the Caribbean as Columbus did, teeming with 30 million green turtles rather than the million today," writes O'Dor. "Envisioning turns into explanation, for example, of the changing energy flow through the community of life on Georges Bank when fishers remove cod and haddock."
In the future, the census will begin assaying numbers and biomasses to get quantities and distributions of ocean creatures.
Following the report’s launch, scientists involved in the project met today to map out research priorities for the next seven years.
On a practical level, the census identifies threatened species and important breeding areas, helping fisheries authorities develop effective strategies for the sustainable management of marine resources.
The results of tracking west coast salmon in the past two years challenge traditional notions about the survival of young salmon as they leave their home rivers and enter the ocean. Understanding life for salmon at sea may be key to maintaining their populations. The census is creating an underwater observation system that will enable tracking of tagged salmon and marine animals anywhere on the continental shelf.
New pharmaceuticals and industrial compounds are among the potential bio-prospecting spin-offs of the thousands of new species being found. Less than 10 miles off the Florida Keys, scientists recently discovered a new species, and perhaps new genus, of sponge – bright red and nicknamed the "rasta sponge." Chemical compounds found in it may help treat cancerous tumors, census scientists believe.
Other benefits of the census include identification of oases and nurseries in the open and deep oceans that merit protection. Deep sea researchers exploring the abyssal sediments off Angola as part of the census found an environment with more species per area than in any other known aquatic environment on Earth. About 80 percent of the collected species were new to science - more than 500 suspected new species have been recognized in samples so far with a final total of 1,000 expected.
The research will improve understanding of the relationship between deep sea species diversity and the richness of food productivity in the water column and help predict the effects of global warming.
"Expecting great surprises, we cannot fully know what we do not know and what is unknowable," writes O'Dor. "Discovery is ahead."
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