Eight years into the most comprehensive analysis of living things in the world's oceans ever undertaken, scientists from 82 countries are giddy with excitement. Begun in 2000, the Marine Census of Life is being carried out by more than 2,000 scientists from 82 different nations. By 2010, the scientists expect to have described as many as 250,000 species.
Not only is the census turning up new forms of life never before described by science, or seen by human eyes, but the project is providing new information about where creatures live, how they migrate, and what human influences are most important to their survival.
In recent years, a raft of research has documented the severe problems plaguing our oceans. Overfishing, pollution, acidification and warming are conspiring to upend ecosystems and render vast stretches of water nearly lifeless, relative to past conditions. One common protection strategy scientists repeatedly recommend is to preserve marine reserves, to prohibit exploitative fishing, mining and energy development.
The Marine Census of Life is a whale-sized positive in that negative sea. It has all the excitement of a sci-fi thriller, complete with unusual life forms, advanced technology and unexpected discoveries. Of course, the most exciting part is that it's all real, and all right here on Earth.
Scientists will present an update of their latest findings Tuesday at the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity in Spain. Here's a look at some of the recent findings:
A 30-Million-Year-Old Octopus
Scientists have uncovered the first molecular evidence that a large proportion of deep see octopus species worldwide evolved from a common ancestor some 30 million years ago, and that that ancient species still swims in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica.
A "New Continent" in the Mid-Atlantic
A survey of area in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, under more than a mile and a half of water, is prompting scientists to describe their findings as a "new continent" so rife is it with rare or previously unknown species.
Life at the World's Deepest Hot Vent
Ashadze, which at more than 2.5-miles deep, is the world's deepest known active hot vent, is dominated by anemones, polychaete worms and shrimp, scientists have found. They're finding signs of life even in areas mostly or completely devoid of oxygen.
Black Sea Methane Chimneys
Methane spewing from the floor of the Black Sea is the energy source for bacteria that grow into "spectacular" chimneys up to 13 feet tall. Not only are they interesting reefs, but understanding them could ultimately help scientists learn to control the flow of methane a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
A Brittle Star "City"
Tens of millions of brittle stars, multilegged deep-water echinoderms, were found living bound together arm tip-to-arm tip on the tip of a seamount near New Zealand that is taller than the tallest city skyscraper. A circumpolar current seems to keep predators away, while providing the network of stars a steady supply of food.
New Arctic Species
Scientists exploring a rare rocky bottom in an area of the Arctic where soft mud is more common have described several new creatures in the Aleutian archipelago, including a kelp, sea anemones, chitons, snails and sea stars.
Pacific Hot Spots
Scientists have discovered warm eddies in the Pacific spawn green meadows of phytoplankton tiny floating plants which in turn attract entire ecosystems, complete with shrimp, predatory fish like tuna, seabirds and even whales. All because of a little warm water.
Scars on Boulder's Pencil
At 112 square miles, the Earth's largest methane seep, Boulder's Pencil, near New Zealand, has been mapped for the first time, and scientists have discovered the scars of deep-sea trawls. This destructive form of fishing drags heavy nets across the ocean floor, decimating life and habitat in the process.
Discovering the deep Philippines
The first deep-sea survey around the Philippines has yielded 300 fish, 400 mollusk species and 320 decapod crustaceans, including many rare or new species. Among them, a deep-water stony coral, rare deep-water snails (including some living on a dog's skull that had washed out to sea) and shrimp.
A heavily fished area off Tanzania, where destructive practices like the use of dynamite to kill fish are still used, is being explored in hopes of creating a marine protected area so that it can recover.
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