Scientists attempt census of ocean life


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Posted by on November 24, 2004 at 01:27:56:

Halifax - Up to two million new species could be discovered by the end of the decade as an international team assembles the first-ever database on what crawls, swims or simply exists in the world's oceans.

About 1,000 scientists from 70 countries are working on the Census of Marine Life, a $1-billion (U.S.) project that will report its findings in 2010.

On Monday, the Ocean Biographic Information System database released a map showing the marine species that have been catalogued so far under the massive, 10-year project.

Everything from microscopic plankton to large whales are represented by the 5.2 million coloured dots that cover the map so far.

Each dot represents the location of the 38,000 species that have been entered into the database since the project began in 2000. But huge swaths are bathed in dark blue, indicating areas where no samples have ever been recorded.

If anything, the map illustrates how little we know about life beneath the waves, the scientists say.

We live on a planet that's 70 per cent water and we know less about the bottom of the ocean than we do about the far side of the moon, Ron O'Dor, chief scientist for the project, said Monday from Washington, D.C.

About 230,000 species are known to live in the oceans, but scientists believe more than two million could exist.

Thousands of new ones have already been discovered under the project, which is concentrating on areas and depths that have rarely been plumbed before.

Scientists working at four sites off southern Africa recently found 400 new species while a team working on the mid-Atlantic ridge - a range of undersea mountains - found suspected new species of squid and deepwater fish.

An average of two new fish species are being uncovered each week.

We have barely skimmed the surface, said Fred Grassle, a Rutgers professor who chairs the project's scientific steering committee.

Humans have explored less than 5 per cent of the world's oceans. And even where we have explored, life may have been too small to be seen.

The project, which provides the first centralized web-based database of marine species, is also the first concerted effort to discover new life.

Dr. O'Dor, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said technological developments in the last 10 years have allowed scientists to peer into depths that were inaccessible in the past.

Any fish caught below 2,000 metres is 50 times more likely to be a new species than one caught near the surface, he said, adding the amount of sampling done below that depth is less than one tenth of one per cent of the total samples taken.

The project is also providing new insights into the migration and distribution of known species, including the rare green sturgeon.

About 140 of the giant fish have been tagged over the years in their spawning grounds on rivers in California.

Scientists working on the census were stunned to recently find about 30 of the tagged fish off northern Vancouver Island - well beyond their previously imagined range.

By 2010, the census will produce a three-dimensional map that will be the best illustration yet of the diversity of life in our oceans.

But we won't have sampled all the species, by any means, said Dr. Grassle, adding that scientists will have only begun to understand the world of marine micro-organisms.

Dr. Grassle said there is a huge literature of evidence that suggests the most diversity of life is on land.

But I think that's very debatable, he said. I think the deep-sea diversity at least rivals that of the land.



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