New Species of Marine Marvels Found in 2006
Deep sea shrimp that can tolerate the hottest fluids ever discovered coming from a seafloor vent, a school of fish off the coast of New Jersey the size of the island of Manhattan, and many new species found far beneath Antarctic ice - these are just a few of the discoveries made in 2006 by scientists working with the global Census of Marine Life.
Some 2,000 researchers from 80 countries are engaged in a 10 year initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life in the world’s oceans past, present and future.
Census scientists mounted 19 ocean expeditions in 2006. The most intense field work is taking place in 2006 through 2008. The results will be analysed and synthesized in 2009 and 2010. The goal is to publish by 2010 an initial census describing what lived, now lives, and will live in the oceans.
"The vast expanse of the oceans, the rarity of some animals, their movements, and fluctuations challenge Census researchers. Happily, the astonishing progress of the past six years shows the community will create the first-ever Census of Marine Life in 2010," says Jesse Ausubel, a program manager for the Sloan Foundation, a Census sponsor.
This year the scientists inventoried nearshore biodiversity, where the number of active sampling sites grew exponentially from 30 to 128 this year.
Using satellites, they followed across thousands of kilometers of ocean more than 20 tagged species - from sharks and squid to sea lions, albatross and shearwaters.
"Each Census expedition reveals new marvels of the ocean and with the return of each vessel it is increasingly clear that many more discoveries await marine explorers for years to come," says Fred Grassle, chair of the Census Scientific Steering Committee.
Far offshore in the equatorial Atlantic three kilometers (two miles) below the surface, Census scientists found shrimp, mussels and clams among other life forms on the edges of fluids venting from the Earth’s core at an unprecedented marine recording of 407 degrees Celsius (765 degrees Fahrenheit).
Although the species resemble those around other vents, scientists want to study how, surrounded by near-freezing water, their chemistry allows them to withstand heat pulses that approach the boiling point as well as high concentrations of heavy metals from the vent fluids.
In the Southern Ocean, census takers revealed a community of marine life beneath 700 meters of ice – 200 kilometers from open water. Sampling during three lengthy cruises yielded more new than familiar species.
Tracking tagged sooty shearwaters by satellite, Census researchers mapped the small bird’s 70,000 kilometer search for food in a giant figure eight over the Pacific Ocean, from New Zealand via Polynesia to foraging grounds in Japan, Alaska and California and then back.
Making the longest-ever electronically recorded migration in only 200 days, the shearwaters averaged 350 kilometers daily. In some cases, scientists found that a breeding pair of shearwaters made the entire journey together.
Near Easter Island, Census researchers discovered a crab so unusual it warranted a whole new family designation, Kiwaidae. The discovery also added a new genus, Kiwa, named for the mythological Polynesian goddess of shellfish. Its furry or hairy appearance inspired its species name, hirsuta.
Among the new species discovered is a unique squid that chews collected from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and named Promachoteuthis sloani.
Census zooplankton researchers discovered three new genera and 31 new species of copepods and mysids, small crustaceans, in Southeast Asian, Australian, and New Zealand waters.
The scientists say that overall, they anticipated being able to double the number of known zooplankton species after analyzing collections from biodiversity hotspots, the deep sea, and other unexplored regions.
Census microbe hunters found more than 20,000 kinds of bacteria in a single liter of sea water.
Reaching far back into the past, in such archives as taxes on salt to cure fish, Census historians reconstructed the changing abundance of marine life in 12 estuaries and coastal seas around the world.
In archives from Roman times in the Adriatic Sea, the medieval era in Northern Europe, to Colonial times in North America and Australia, they confirmed that exploitation and habitat destruction have depleted 90 percent of important fish species.
"The historical studies of the Census of Marine Life agree with recent studies showing steep declines of most wild populations of marine animals that people eat," says Dr. Grassle. "The past richness of the oceans in many near shore regions is hard for people today to believe."
They confirmed elimination of 65 percent of seagrass and wetland habitat, a 10 to 1,000 fold degradation of water quality, and accelerated species invasions.
They also found signs of transitions from degradation to recovery where conservation measures have been put in place during the 20th century.
Depletion has been documented, but new abundance has also been found. Among the many new species discovered by Census participants this year, are 1.8 kilogram (four pound) rock lobsters that Census explorers found off Madagascar are the largest. Named Palinurus barbarae, the main body of these lobsters spans half a meter (19 inches).
Using new technology, Census scientists discovered a previously unknown mass of 20 million fish the size of Manhattan, swimming off the coast of New Jersey.
Sound emitted by the new ship-based technology illuminates life in an oceanic area tens of thousands times larger than previously possible. It updates instantaneously and continuously, revealing the extension and shrinking, fragmentation and merging of masses of fish.
Analysts in the Census network have compiled the first global assessment of the extent, effectiveness, and omissions of coral reefs as Marine Protected Areas.
Contributing to and using the Census’ information system, they found that less than two percent of coral reefs worldwide are protected from extraction, poaching and other major threats. They built their worldwide database of protected areas for 102 countries, including satellite imagery of reefs.
The Census Ocean Biogeographic Information System now publishes over 140 global databases, producing an online library of more than 10 million distribution records - up from four million just two years ago - of over 78,000 species.
A complementary library of short DNA sequences – barcodes for quick identification of marine animals – grew past 4,000, including 2,000 fish. Holes in the Census database define clearly the unknown ocean.
Each of 17 core Census projects produces a different dimension of knowledge. Two new associate projects were added in 2006, studying biodiversity in the Gulf of Mexico and along the seafloor of the Great Barrier Reef.
The newest Census expedition is about to embark upon the first biological study of areas in the Antarctic newly exposed by atmospheric global warming.
On the Antarctic Peninsula and throughout Western Antarctica, glaciers are melting and the Larsen ice shelves are collapsing. As a result, areas which were previously covered by ice shelves several hundred meters thick are now accessible to researchers.
Scientists with the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research of Germany will shortly conduct the first major biological research in this newly uncovered area, studying living communities, from microbes to whales, including bottom fish and squids.