From 5,400 meters deep, the copepod ceratonotus steiningeri…credit: Jan Michels
Creature pictures like the one above get our attention. There will be many such pictures popping up in the popular media for a few days. Let’s call them heralds for a major scientific achievement: the first global Census of Marine Life.
The census is the work of a decade by more than 540 expeditions to all ends of the sea, more than 2,700 scientists, 2,600 academic papers and some 30 million observations. This was an effort worthy of the oceans, the cradle of life. Timely too, as our concerns over climate change and species loss require adequate baseline observations to compare against new data.
To highlight the effort a number of books, papers, and web materials were released today (October 4, 2010):
First Census of Marine Life 2010: Highlights of a decade of discovery
Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count (Cambridge University Press
Life in the World’s Oceans: Diversity, Distribution, and Abundance (Blackwell Publishing)
Citizens of the Sea: Wondrous Creatures from the Census of Marine Life (National Geographic)
Not surprisingly the census expands our notion of life in the oceans. It is now believed the number of non-microbial species exceeds 1 million. Of those, 250,000 have now been formally described. Over 200,000 species are now logged to the master database of the World Register of Marine Species. Then there are the microbes…the numbers defy classification (taxonomy), 100 phyla with 18 million groups – the estimate of marine microbes, 1 billion ‘kinds’.
The numbers are impressive, but the real power of the census is the methodologies, analytics, and ecological frameworks that were created for it. Among these are:
• OBIS, sometimes called a “macroscope,” a tool to reveal large patterns and grasp meaning in millions of marine life observations around the globe. OBIS is the world’s largest marine species data archive, compiling centuries of observations to which Census scientists added their own in a freely accessible public infrastructure for research.
• Baselines of biodiversity, distribution, and abundance to assess damage from future oil spills and pollution or from climate change, such as warming water or a changing ocean chemistry.
• Findings recorded in books and reports, most freely accessible online.
• Sampling protocols and standards for information collection and archiving, imparting order and comparability around the globe and through time.
• Dependable information to improve national ocean policy and management, and the international Convention on Biological Diversity and other agreements to protect high seas resources, sustain fisheries, and regulate seabed mining.
• Means to identify the species of a specimen, even from a fish scale, using DNA barcoding.
• Marine elements of the incipient Global Earth Observation System of Systems, including:
• A growing global ocean tracking network of microphones to track salmon and other migrant animals, launched with an array from California past Canada to Alaska.
• A legion of “bio-logger” animals, thousands strong, equipped with compact devices that record data for future retrieval or for reporting in near real time on their diving and travels along the continents or across the oceans.
• Special sonar devices and techniques to see marine life assembling in schools and moving up, down, or across tens of thousands of square kilometers of ocean.
• Innovative “Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures,” which contribute to standardized global comparisons and monitoring of reef life.
Last but not least it should be pointed out that this amount of work cost money, some $650 million. Contributions were made by 80 countries, 670 institutions, foundations (Alfred P. Sloan Foundation: $75 million), and thousands of individuals.