An estimated 5,000 previously unknown ocean fish species and hundreds of thousands of other marine life forms are yet to be discovered, according to scientists engaged in a massive global scientific collaboration to identify and catalog life in the oceans.
The new marine fish species, being identified at an average rate of 160 per year (roughly three new species per week since year 2000), are being catalogued and mapped by the Census of Marine Life (CoML), an unprecedented cooperative initiative involving leading marine scientists from every world region. The Census issued its first report after three years of work Oct. 23 at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
More than 300 scientists from 53 countries are at work on the Census, designed to assess the diversity, distribution and abundance of ocean life and explain how it changes over time. The scientists, their institutions and government agencies are pooling their findings to create a comprehensive and authoritative portrait of life in the oceans today, yesterday and tomorrow.
Field projects (currently seven, with up to eight more envisioned) constitute the fourth Census component. The seven current projects involve detailed study of:
Three of the Census’ seven initial field studies are based in North America, three in Europe and one in Japan. New upcoming field projects (including examinations of microbes, plankton, reefs, the Arctic, and seamounts) will be based in the Southern Hemisphere and other regions.
Each project is demonstrating the use of a new technology or technique for collecting data on diversity, distribution or abundance. As the Census proceeds, these sampling methods will be used to expand studies internationally.
The Known, Unknown and Unknowable
The first Census report describes efforts to separate the known from the unknown and unknowable.
Creating an inventory of the known, it says, is easiest. ¡§Stone tablets, libraries, and now the electronic web have accumulated a vast inventory of the known.¡¨ Earlier this year the Census FMAP team reported that every species of large wild fish has been caught so extensively over the past 50 years that 90 per cent of each type has disappeared.
Separating the unknown from the unknowable is far harder. Intrinsically, some things are simply unknowable, such as the number of fish in a bay a decade from now given such variables as climate change. As well, ¡§some things are unknowable because the search is impractical¡¨ -- for example, a sea to be explored is inaccessible, specimens explode from extreme pressure when brought to the surface, or the cost and tedium of exploration become overwhelming.
Life in the "Six Ocean Realms"
The report describes the known, unknown and unknowable in six ocean realms - the human edges, hidden boundaries, light and dark zones of the central waters, active geology, ice and microscopic.
The Human Edges
While scientists know much about what lives near the shore, continuing effort is needed to measure changes, according to the report, and many species remain unknown and perhaps unknowable. For example, in just three cubic meters of a coral reef off New Caledonia in the South Pacific, some 130,000 molluscs were found belonging to 3,000 species, many undescribed.
To date, 2,000 species of plants and animals have been recorded in the Gulf of Maine alone, an area intensively studied as a Census pilot project, ranging from microbes in bottom sediments to whales in the wind-driven surface. Global estimates now place a total of 12,000 species in the nearshore realm worldwide.
Continental margins and abyssal plains hidden beneath the waters bound the oceans¡¦ sides and bottom. At the limit of some continental margins, trenches more than four kilometers deep open. The deepest water and greatest pressure in the world lie at the bottom of the 11 km-deep Mariana Trench in the Eastern Pacific near the island of Guam.
The hidden margins support many of the same species associated with deeper waters. Margins feature more complicated habitats than the abyssal plains at the bottom and are likely nursery areas in which new species evolve.
The abyssal plains are the accumulation of eons of marine snow ¡V particles, some living and some not, falling through kilometers of water and settling at the bottom of the oceans. The silt is wider than any other habitat on the planet ¡V 5 km deep in places ¡V giving depth of silt the same scale as the ocean above. The abyssal plain contains 100,000 known species, mostly small crustaceans and various worms. The nutrition of the plain, its sheer volume, and its unchanging character over millions of years account for its incredible diversity and abundance.
The darkness, depth, pressure, and size of the abyssal plain make continuous or even frequent observations in this realm extremely difficult, hiding how fast things are changing, which will keep much of the life this area unknowable. Experts question whether even an intensive and expensive sampling program could describe the projected millions of new species in this currently inaccessible realm.
The Central Waters - light and dark zones
The oceans’ central waters fill the vast bowl formed by the hidden boundaries. Sunlight penetrates and fuels photosynthesis of food within the top 200 meters or so, enriching these waters that cover 70% of the planet and feeding tens of thousands of species. A marine snow from the light zone falls into the dark zone between the light and abyssal plain, feeding still more species.
The 50,000 species of plankton in the light zone are mostly single cell organisms like many algae and protozoa or krill, miniature relatives of shrimps. Plankton capable of photosynthesis, the phytoplankton, is the grass in the oceanic pasture, converting CO2 gas into 300 billion tons of food for tiny animals like krill that in turn feed the larger animals up the food chain. This is equal to all the food on land made through photosynthesis.
Satellites looking at light reflected from the ocean provide reasonable indications of the location, abundance, and even some kinds of phytoplankton present across most of the ocean surface, revealing oceanic hotspots, the equivalent of lush meadows on land.
Some 20,000 swimming species of inhabit the light zone, including the oceans¡¦ largest mammal (Blue Whales) and largest fish (Whale Sharks). Questions in the light zone are more about distribution and abundance than about the species themselves. The uncertain movement of organisms in the light zone and the scarcity of scientists to monitor them render some knowledge beyond current reach. For example, whales cruising at 20 km/h could circle the globe several times in a year. The lush pastures of phytoplankton sometimes move thousands of kilometers in a year.
Extending more than 4,000 meters into pitch-blackness, the dark zone’s volume exceeds by many fold the volume of the 200-meter light zone. The snow of wastes, carcasses of large animals, and swimmers venturing below their normal light zone end up as food for animals in the dark beneath. The mass of organisms declines with depth, modified by mid-ocean ridges that affect circulation just as mountains affect weather on land.
Some 20,000 species live in mid-water; arthropod crustaceans and chordate fish predominate, but strange floating jellyfish and molluscs are also important.
Several hundred thousand species exist in the bottom water and many may remain unknowable. In the dark, at 200 m to 5 km below the surface, without normal oxygen and at crushing pressure, many species may never be caught and named. And, if they are caught and brought to the surface, their shape will change as a result of the pressure changes.
The Active Geology ¡V Seamounts, Vents and Seeps
To qualify as seamounts, underwater ghost volcanoes must rise at least 1,000 m from the abyssal plain without appearing above water as an island. At mid-ocean ridges interactions among the liquid magma from Earth’s core, gases, and water at extreme pressures create high temperature deep-sea vents rich in chemicals that feed bacteria at the base of these unique food chains. At many continental margins, groundwater and oil seep out of rocks to feed bacteria. The flows caused by vents and seeps allow the creation of food without light and good conditions for species evolution.
Although the technology to explore vents and seeps may differ, research shares the need for comparing species and behaviors that colonize and sustain isolated populations. The number of species known to inhabit the active geology realm stands at 6,000. Vents and seeps were only discovered 25 years ago, but 700 new species have already been described, from a few dozen sites. Recent explorations of seamounts found that 15-40% of the species collected were new to science and likely found nowhere else.
The Ice Oceans ¡V Arctic and Antarctic
In the cold, inhospitable oceans near the poles, photosynthesis still proceeds as microscopic algae absorb light transmitted through the ice and feed a spectrum of life from crustaceans to fish to mammals, like seals and narwhals.
In the ice oceans the unknown species are largely nematodes and single cell organisms. Large opportunities lie in interpreting the samples already collected in Antarctic waters and in exploring the neglected cracks in the sea ice, the coastal fjords of the Canadian Archipelago and Greenland and the Eastern Siberian Shelf. A recent international expedition to the Canada Basin using the newest under-ice technology discovered and filmed large schools of arctic cod between the layers of pack ice. Normally bottom feeders, these cod were filmed grazing on upside-down algal pastures. This surprising find encourages further exploration under the ice.
The Microscopic Microorganisms in the oceans make up for their minute size by their numbers. The 1030 microbe cells in the ocean comprise more than 90% of the mass of all living things in the oceans, and represent an amount of biomass 10,000 times greater than all the world¡¦s whales. Some 50% of earth¡¦s oxygen is created by photosynthesis produced by ocean microbes.
The report describes huge challenges ahead en route to a comprehensive Census.
For example, nearly 500 fish taxonomists work to classify and name fish in the world today. This is likely 10 times the number of taxonomists working on non-commercial marine groups like nematodes (worms consisting of an elongated stomach and reproduction system inside a resistant outer skin. A microscope is needed to see most nematodes, which measure between 400 micrometers to 5 mm.). Nematode taxonomists, even if working 10 times as fast as fish experts and given the benefit of today¡¦s information technologies, would need thousands of years to name most of the estimated 1 million unknown species.
"By the end of the 10-year Census initiative, we expect several results," says Jesse Ausubel, Program Director of CoML for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. "We will have identified many new species and will know with far greater precision how many remain undiscovered. "We will know better whether the size spectrum of animals in the ocean is changing: Are small animals replacing the large? We will know better how changes in the abundance of ocean life are shifting among major groups: Are jellies replacing fish? And we will know much better what we do not know - identifying the unexplored.
"As important," he added, "we will have created fundamental tools for the future, especially the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, the essential information utility for the next generation of marine resource managers and researchers, and components of the Global Ocean Observing System monitoring marine life. This observing system, used to monitor waves and currents as well as whales and microbes, should improve our view of marine life and conditions in ways unimaginable short years ago."
Said Dr. Grassle: "We hope our early progress inspires many others to join in writing and appreciating the marine chapters of life¡¦s encyclopedia. We invite additional worldwide support and participation to advance this remarkable work."
Terry Collins | EurekAlert!
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