AP Photo/Jan Michels, Census of Marine Life
The world’s oceans may be vast and deep, but a decade-long count of marine animals finds sea life so interconnected that it seems to shrink the watery world. An international effort to create a Census of Marine Life was completed with maps and three books, increasing the number of counted and validated species to 201,206. A decade ago the question of how many species are out there couldn’t be answered. It also could have led to a lot of arguments among scientists. Some species were counted several or even dozens of times, said Jesse Ausubel of the Alfred Sloan Foundation, the co-founder of the effort that involved 2,700 scientists.
The $650 million project got money and help from more than 600 groups, including various governments, private foundations, corporations, non-profits, universities, and even five high schools. The Sloan foundation is the founding sponsor, contributing $75 million. But what scientists learned was more than a number or a count. It was a sense of how closely life connects from one place to another and one species to another, Ausubel said.
Take the bizarre and minuscule shrimp-like creature called Ceratonotus steiningeri. It has several spikes and claws and looks intimidating — if it weren’t a mere two-hundredths of an inch long. Five years ago this critter had never been seen before. No one knew of its existence. Then, off the Atlantic coast of Africa as part of the census, it was found at a depth of more than three miles below the surface. It was one of 800 species found in that research trip, said discoverer Pedro Martinez Arbizu, a department head at the German Centre for Marine Biodiversity Research.
He was astonished to find that the tiny creature also was within the cataloging he’d made earlier 8,000 miles away in the central Pacific. There was that critter again. Same shrimpy creature, different ocean. “We were really very, very surprised about that,” Arbizu said in an interview. “We think this species has a very broad distribution area.”