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Census of Marine Life: What lurks under the sea?

There are some unusual things living in the world’s oceans: A "city" made up of tens of millions of brittle stars (relatives of starfish) living on the peak of a seamount (see photo to the left), or underwater summit north of the Antarctic Circle; a huge, 16-inch (407 millimeter) long by quarter-inch (10 millimeter) wide mollusk, Chaetoderma felderi, discovered deep in the Gulf of Mexico near Louisiana; and enormous bacteria in the eastern South Pacific that may help clean polluted ocean floors, a concept known as bioremediation.

Those are just some of the 5,300 potentially new ocean species that scientists working on the Census of Marine Life have identified so far. The findings, released ahead of the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity that begins tomorrow in Valencia, Spain, are a preview of this upcoming census of aquatic life. Scientists estimate that the final tally of sea creatures will come in around 230,000.

Some 2,000 scientists from 82 countries are working on the census, which will be released in October 2010. It will eventually amass DNA "barcodes" for many of them, estimates of changes in their populations and how they fit into the food chain, and Web pages with the Encyclopedia of Life, a project to put information about all known species online.

Another striking find is a "white shark cafe" — a gathering of white sharks midway between California and Hawaii. In a March interview with CBC Radio One, marine scientist Barbara Block speculated that the sharks are meeting there to eat and socialize.

“Not only do we have a better picture of the distribution of the animals that stay in place, we are approaching a global picture of the movements of animals, whether swirling in eddies the size of Ireland, or commuting 8,000 kilometers across ocean basins," squid expert Ron O’Dor of Canada's Dalhousie University said in a statement.

For a look at some exotic aquatic creatures, check out our slide show.

Updated at 4:25 p.m. Nov. 11 with information on the "white shark cafe."

Photo credit: Brittlestar City/National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research

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