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Loriciferans can live their entire lives hidden in sediment on the seafloor without oxygen (Image: Roberto Danovaro/COML)

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Study identifies more than 1 million ocean species

Alok Jha, Guardian science and environment correspondent

5th October, 2010

The Census of Marine Life is finally complete after a decade of work by 2,700 scientists from 80 countries



It is the culmination of a decade of work by 2,700 scientists from 80 countries, who went on more than 540 expeditions into the farthest reaches of the most mysterious realm on the planet – the world's oceans.

Today, the US$650 million Census of Marine Life (COML) project announced the culmination of its work, concluding that the deep is home to more than a million species – of which less than a quarter are described in the scientific literature.

Since the project started in 2000, around 16,000 species have been added to the COML databases and more than 5,000 are still being worked on by scientists. In total, around 2,600 scientific papers have been published as part of the project.

Jesse Ausubel, environmental scientist at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and co-founder of the COML project said that the results had far exceeded any vision he had started with.

'On the one hand we feel like the people in London and Paris who, 250 years ago, were creating the first dictionaries and encyclopaedias. In 2000, there was a chaos with regards the information about marine life. Now we have a valid list of species, 201,000 as of yesterday. 90,000 of these species have web pages in the Encyclopaedia of Life. 35,000 of these have DNA sequences. It's not your grandfather's census: this census is this wonderful, living, interactive set of databases on the internet with hyperlinks to images, sounds, the ability to create maps.'

The COML will form a baseline against which scientists will be able to monitor biodiversity changes as they are affected by a range of environmental factors. 'We live in a world of very rapid change,' said Ausubel. 'Increasing illumination and sound in the ocean, the removal of sea life, acidification, changes in temperature and currents. We want to monitor and evaluate the effects of these and other activities. We can't do any of these in the absence of baselines. We hope what the census has done is create the first baseline and create a framework in which it is easy to add more information about marine plants or other newly-discovered animals.'

To mark the end of the COML project, scientists at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) showed off the results of the Census of Antarctic Marine Life, an inventory of more than 16,000 marine species and the culmination of more than 19 trips into Antarctic waters.

Huw Griffiths, a marine biologist at the BAS said that identifying new species sometimes required specialist techniques. With the help of a team from New Zealand, BAS identified a a new species of amphipod crustacean, which looks a bit like a shrimp. 'Natural variation in the shape and colour of this creature makes it difficult to tell if the ones we found were the same type of species, or not. Using DNA barcoding it was possible to identify this animal as a different species that was new to science.'

Understanding what lives in the Southern Ocean has helped scientists to identify a benchmark against which they can measure the effects of climate change, he added. 'The marine life we study in Antarctica is, naturally, vulnerable to these effects including warming sea surface temperatures, rising ocean acidification and decreasing winter sea ice. But we've also seen just how resilient some of these creatures can be, surviving and thriving in some of the most challenging conditions on the planet.'

Despite a decade of work and 9,000 days at sea, however, there is much still to be done. COML scientists estimate that 10 per cent of the species in European oceans have yet to be described. Around South Africa that figure is 38 per cent, in Antarctica it is 39 to 58 per cent, for Japan it is 70 per cent, the Mediterranean deep-sea 75 per cent and Australia 80 per cent.

Ian Poiner, chair of the COML steering committee, said: '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. And 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.'

Useful links

Census of Marine Life (COML) project

This article is reproduced courtesy of the Guardian Environment Network

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