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Landmark Census Of Marine Life Finds 'Riot Of Species'

A bottom-dwelling grenadier fish (photo: MAR-ECO/Oystein Paulsen-IMR)
Crawling down underwater canyons, scampering among deep-sea jets of superheated gas, and crowding each drop of water under a scientist's microscope; life exists everywhere beneath the ocean waves.

Now, after a decade of research, hundreds of ocean expeditions, and thousands of hours of work by scientists from more than 80 countries, the Census of Marine Life project has revealed the most comprehensive look at undersea life ever.

Researchers say they discovered "an unanticipated riot of species" and that the census's findings constitute an unprecedented catalog of life in the planet's oceans. Scientists say they are also excited that they now have critical information to help them assess man's impact on undersea life.

"The scientific community was very interested in understanding what is out there [in the oceans], what don't we know, what can we discover, what's the distribution of species," James Baker, an oceanography specialist and member of the census's steering committee, said. "But we never had the ability -- either in terms of trying to bring everybody together, or the funding -- and so the scientific community, I think, is very excited about the fact that we were able to do something that we simply couldn't have done before."

The $650 million project received funding from more than 600 groups, including governments, corporations, nonprofits, and universities.

Just one of the thousands of new species discovered was a creature in the Atlantic Ocean that scientists described as nearly a missing link between backboned and invertebrate animals.

In total, the census recorded more than 6,000 potentially new species and increased the estimate of known marine species by 20,000 -- from 230,000 to some 250,000. Moreover, the study says, that amount may represent as little as one-fourth of the total number of organisms inhabiting the world's oceans.

Ian Poiner, a marine ecologist and chair of the census's steering committee, told Reuters that scientists were surprised to discover how closely different species in the world's oceans are connected.

"We have tunas that move from the west coast of the U.S. to Japan and back to the west coast of the U.S. We have sharks that move from the southwest coast of Australia to South Africa and back," Poiner said. "That sort of connectedness we didn't understand [before]."

Researchers found a similar degree of connectedness on the genetic level.

A cranchid squid (photo: MAR-ECO/Marsh Youngbluth)
Among fish, the bits of genetic code that scientists have analyzed so far suggest that species differ by less than 15 percent.

Checking Marine Health

But perhaps the broadest implication of the census is that it establishes a benchmark against which scientists can measure changes in the health of the world's oceans.

In a fortunate coincidence, the project included an in-depth study of the Gulf of Mexico, which was completed ahead of April's catastrophic BP oil spill. In one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, millions of barrels of crude were released from a damaged underwater well before it was plugged in July.

In its 2009 study of the gulf, the census found more than 8,000 species, including fish and mammals, living in the waters where the spill occurred.

Now, post-disaster, that finding will help marine biologists evaluate how well the ecosystem is recovering and what needs to be done to help.

Two of the five people on a U.S. presidential commission formed to investigate the spill also served on the census's research team.

"The census had collected the most detailed description of species in the Gulf of Mexico, and this was the first time that we had had such a wonderful description of species before a big oil spill took place," Baker said. "Now, the scientific results [on the oil spill's impact] are not in yet, but because of this existing new database, we'll have a much better way of looking at what is the impact of the surface oil and the oil that is dispersed in the water column."

The project's data will also help scientists evaluate the effects of global warming and related ocean acidification, which are already proving to have a profound impact on undersea life.

Around 40 percent of plankton -- the tiny creatures at the core of the ocean's food chain -- has disappeared in the last 30 years, which the study attributes to a rise in water temperatures.

The results are also said to contain valuable information for how to maintain a sustainable world fishing industry.

At the census's unveiling in London on October 4, co-founder Jesse Ausubel said it had "far exceeded any dream."

He and the more than 2,000 experts who worked on the project, he said, "felt like the people who created the first dictionary and encyclopedia 250 years ago."

with additional wire reporting