Marine census catalogs creatures
that roam all corners of the seas
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 $650 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
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. — Susan Milius
CloCkwise from top right: Courtesy ifremer, A. fifis 2006; next two: John huismAn; gAry CrAnitCh/QueenslAnd museum 2008
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.