10-year census finds thousands of new species

By AAP with AG Staff | October 5, 2010

A decade-long marine census involving 2,700 scientists and 9,000 days at sea has found thousands of species.

RESULTS OF THE first-ever global marine life census have been unveiled, revealing an unprecedented view of life beneath the waves after a decade-long trawl through the murky depths.

The Census of Marine Life – announced on Monday – estimated there are more than one million species in the oceans, with at least three-quarters of them yet to be discovered. The $US650 million ($A669 million) international study found more than 6,000 potentially new species, and found some species considered rare were actually common.

The research involved more than 2,700 scientists, 670 institutions, more than 540 expeditions and around 9,000 days at sea. Nearly 30 million observations of 120,000 species were made. The census establishes a baseline of species against which 21st-century changes can be monitored. New species were discovered, marine highways and rest stops mapped and changes in species abundance were documented.

“Presented is an unprecedented picture of the diversity, distribution and abundance of all kinds of marine life in Planet Ocean – from microbes to whales, from the icy poles to the warm tropics, from the tidal near shores to the deepest dark depths,” the study said.

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Thousands yet to discover

The survey set out to find out what used to live in the oceans, what lives there now and what might live there in the future. The census said 16,764 species of fish had so far been described but an estimated 5,000 more were yet to be discovered.

The estimated percentage of marine species not yet described by scientists were:
* Europe: 10 per cent
* South Africa: 38 per cent
* Antarctica: 39 to 58 per cent
* Japan: 70 per cent
* Mediterranean deep-sea: 75 per cent
* Australia: 80 per cent

Australian marine scientist Dr Ian Poiner, chair of the census steering committee, said the researchers “systematically defined for the first time both the known and the vast unknown, unexplored ocean.”

“All surface life depends on life inside and beneath the oceans. Sea life provides half of our oxygen and a lot of our food and regulates climate. We are all citizens of the sea,” he said. “While much remains unknown, including at least 750,000 undiscovered species and their roles, we are better acquainted now with our fellow travellers and their vast habitat on this globe.”

The census documented a changing marine world, richer in diversity, more connected through distribution and movements, more impacted by humans and less explored than was expected.

“Luxuriant communities”

The researchers used sound, satellites and electronics to track migratory routes. They got down to 10 km below the sea in the western Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. They affirmed that by weight up to 90 per cent of marine life is microbial, equalling about 35 elephants for every living person.

Scientific steering committee vice-chair Myriam Sibuet of France, said: “The census enlarged the known world. Life astonished us everywhere we looked. In the deep sea we found luxuriant communities despite extreme conditions. The discoveries of new species and habitats both advanced science and inspired artists with their extraordinary beauty.”

The census was formally launched in London on Monday, when more than 300 census figures met in the British capital to share the results and consider their implications.

Much of the marine world remains to be explored, so vast are the seas. The census shows where explorers have not yet looked. For more than 20 per cent of the oceans’ volume, the database has no records at all, and for large areas very few.

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