COUNTING CRITTERS: Thousands of researchers have spent part of the past 10 years assessing the biodiversity of the world's oceans. Their work is still not complete, but the newly detailed picture we have of sea life is worth more than a thousand words. Image: KAREN GOWLETT-HOLMES
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In the realm of research, finding out what you don't know is almost as important as knowing what you do. In marine biology, however, both of these knowledge bases have been rather murky.
The international Census of Marine Life, a $650 million, 10-year-long endeavor, has started to fill in the large blanks, illuminating new swaths of the mysterious deep along the way. A report on the project's findings was released today at a news conference in London.
Although the combined efforts of the more than 2,700 researchers involved in the study were not quite enough to count every fish in the sea, the scientists have added the names and descriptions of more than a thousand new species to the ever-growing list of known ocean life forms.
The catalogue itself feels like one of the biggest accomplishments to those involved in the work. "We actually have a list of the known named species," says Jesse Ausubel, co-founder of the census project and an environmental scientist at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. That might sound basic, but as he points out, when the census started in 2000, those in the field could do little more than guess how many known species there were in the seas.
In addition to the approximately 1,200 species from the census that have been formally described, researchers involved in the work estimate that there are another 5,000 previously unknown species that were collected are still awaiting formal description. But after sifting through new and old lists, members of the research team were able to peg the total number of known marine species at about 250,000—around 20,000 more than typical estimates a decade ago. And many of those species are now searchable in the new Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) and the extensive World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS), databases with information about at least half of the known species—from killer whales to novel nematodes.
View a slide show of 12 species—some new and others familiar—encountered during the Census of Marine Life
The baseline species counts established by the census have already come in handy. The survey for the Gulf of Mexico region was completed in 2009, listing more than 8,000 forms of life in the region where the oil spill occurred. Current and future studies of the area where the oil rig exploded in April will be able to take into account the recent pre-spill data to help assess the incident's ecological impact.
In 2000, the group was "interested in the known, unknown and unknowable," Ausubel says. To that end, part of the census's mission was to figure out what areas of the world's oceans had not been explored. "The Romans had terra incognita," he says, and now modern marine scientists will have a better idea of which remote regions have yet to be probed. "There are still huge areas to explore, but at least we sort of know what they are," Ausubel says.