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Frontiers of Marine Science Stretched by Census Experts

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11 December 2006

Census of Marine Life, Highlights 2006

Scientists intrigued by life around hottest-ever seafloor vent

Manhattan-sized school of herring off New Jersey coast

More new than familiar species in Antarctic-area trawl

A host of record-breaking discoveries and revelations that stretch the extreme frontiers of marine knowledge were achieved by the Census of Marine Life in 2006, highlights of which were released today.

They include life adapted to brutal conditions around 407ºC fluids spewing from a seafloor vent (the hottest ever discovered), a mighty microbe 1 cm in diameter, mysterious 1.8 kg (4 lb) lobsters off the Madagascar coast, a US school of herring the size of Manhattan Island, and more unfamiliar than familiar species turned up beneath 700 meters of Antarctic ice.

Census of Marine Life, Year 6

Now in its 6thyear, Census participants and their supporters pool talents and specialties, ships and laboratories, archives and technology in an unprecedented global scientific collaboration. Together, they are systematically recording the diversity, distribution, and abundance of global marine life. The most intense field work is taking place in 2006-8 the results will be analysed and synthesized in 200-10 with the goal by 2010 of an initial census describing what lived, now lives, and will live in the oceans.

Census scientists mounted 1 ocean expeditions in 2006 (a 20thexpedition underway in the Antarctic can be followed online at ). They inventoried biodiversity along 128 transects of the near-shore coastlines of 51 nations. And, using satellites, they followed across thousands of kilometers of ocean more than 20 tagged species – from sharks and squid to sea lions and albatross.

"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.

Each of 17 core 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 Census now links 14 global databases, producing an online library of more than 10 million records, up from 4 million just two years ago. In that time the number of previously known and newly-discovered marine species has risen from 40,000 to 70,000.

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.

Extremes of Science


At a thermal vent km below surface in the equatorial Atlantic, Census researchers found shrimp and other life forms on the periphery of fluids billowing from Earth's core at an unprecedented marine recording of 407ºC, a temperature that would melt lead easily. Although the species resemble those around other vents, scientists want to study how, surrounded by 2ºC water, their chemistry allows them to withstand heat pulses of up to 80ºC.

Shrimp were seen on the walls of the vent chimney. Others in the habitat include mussels and clams. All somehow tolerate an environment of extreme temperature changes within a few centimeters and high concentrations of heavy metals from the vent fluids.

ChEss Photo credit:MARUM, University of Bremen © 2006.


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Southern Ocean census takers revealed an astonishing community of marine life shrouded beneath 700 meters of ice – 200 km from open water.

Equally remarkable, sampling of this most remote ocean's depths during three lengthy cruises yielded more new than familiar species. (CAML photo shows one of scores of species found, including a jellyfish, possibly Cosmetirella davisi, swimming with tentacles raised.

Photo credit:AGAD, D. Rasch © 2006.)


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Census fish counters' observation off the New Jersey coast of 8 million herring swarmed in a school the size of Manhattan Island qualifies as most new abundance found. Sound focused by a new ship-based technology scans oceanic areas 10,000 times larger than previously possible.


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It updates instantaneously and continuously, revealing the extension and shrinking, fragmentation and merging of the island-sized swarms as a person might watch schools of minnows swimming in a brook beneath a bridge.

GoMA Photo credit:N. Makris © 2006.


Sampling 5 km below surface in the Sargasso Sea, in the deepest zooplankton trawl ever accomplished, Census experts from 14 nations caught these drifting, often soft and elusive animals in a sophisticated net, the MOCNESS.


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They collected more than 500 species, including 12 likely new species, eating each other at the great depths or living on organic matter falling like snow from above. CMarZ photo of menacing-looking, animals such as this amphipod, a small prawn-like crustacean, the supposed inspiration for the movie Alien.

Photo credit:R. Hopcroft, University of Alaska, Fairbanks © 2006.)

Oldest. Census seamount researchers found a shrimp, believed extinguished 50 million years ago, alive and well on an underwater peak in the Coral Sea.

Neoglyphea neocaledonica was nicknamed "Jurassic shrimp" by its discovers, who say it rivals the find in South Africa and Indonesia of the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish previously known only through fossils.

CenSeam Photo credit: Neoglyphea neocaledonica. B. Richer de Forges © 2006.


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Richest: In the sense that biodiversity is richness, Census microbe hunters found 20,000 kinds floating in a single liter of sea water. Samples were taken in the Atlantic and Pacific, including from an eruptive fissure 1,500 meters deep. Revealed by DNA studies, most were unknown and likely rare, inviting an estimate that the diversity of bacteria in the oceans eclipses 5 to 10 million. The researchers also began assembling the best-ever video of protists (micro-organisms that are neither animals, plants, or fungi) and to pioneer optical and genetic techniques to extend the limits of knowledge.

Farthest. Tracking tagged sooty shearwaters by satellite, Census researchers mapped the small bird's 70,000 km search for food in a giant figure eight over the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand to Polynesia to Japan and back to Hawaii. Making the longest-ever electronically-recorded migration in only 200 days, the bird averaged a surprising 50 km daily. In some cases, a breeding pair made the entire journey together.

Largest. Among the many new species discovered by Census participants during 2006, a 1.8 kg (4 lb) rock lobster that Census explorers found off Madagascar may be the largest. Named Palinurus barbarae, the main body spans half a meter.

Discovering diversity: More new species

New technology, the exploration of new regions, and new efficiencies of identification are accelerating discovery and recording of new species. Among the most remarkable finds:

Macro microbe. The protozoan that Census explorers of the continental margins discovered in the Nazare Canyon off Portugal differs from the usual protozoans seen swimming in a drop of water under a microscope. The single cell of this fragile new species of Xenophyophore, found at 4,00 m depth, is enclosed within a plate-like shell, 1 cm in diameter, composed of mineral grains.

Furry crab. Near Easter Island, Census researchers discovered a crab so unusual it warranted a whole new family designation, Kiwaidae. Beyond adding a new family to the wealth of known biodiversity, its discovery added a new genus, Kiwa, named for the mythological Polynesian goddess of shellfish. Its furry or hairy appearance justified its species name, hirsuta.

A squid that chews . Among the 80,000 organisms encompassing 54 families, genera and species – that Census deep-sea investigators collected from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was the reference specimen or holotype for a new species of squid: Promachoteuthis sloani.

Although collection easily damages the soft cephalopods, the hard beaks are unique to each species, including that of the new squid, which looks quite capable of chewing its food.

MAR-ECO photo credit:P. sloani. R. Young © 2006.


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Komoki in Antarctic waters . Komokiacea or "komoki" dominate deep-sea foraminifera, protozaons with false feet used for locomotion and food collection.


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In the Weddell Sea, where ice crushed the ship of Antarctic explorer Shackleton in 115, Census polar researchers found 5 komoki and komoki-like species, at least 42 unknown to science.Photo credit: A. Gooday, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK 2006.

Doubling Zooplankton. Census zooplankton researchers discovered new genera and 1 new species of copepods and mysids, small crustaceans, in Southeast Asian, Australian, and New Zealand waters. Analysis of collections from biodiversity hotspots, the deep sea, and other unexplored regions is on track to double the number of known zooplankton species

Charting distribution

New and continuously improving techniques also let scientists collect and tag creatures in order to follow their movements. Marine animals themselves are thereby recruited as oceanographers, mapping their travels in the world's oceans. With their help, the Census is creating new insights into the present and shifting distribution of global marine life.

Salmon cellphone coverage extended. When 2,600 fish left rivers during the early summer 2006 for a career in the North Pacific, they carried tiny acoustic transmitters. These could be detected for year by the Census using an array of 252 receivers on the continental shelf, reaching outward from shore and stretching along the Pacific migration route to over 2,000 km in 2006. When a fish passes an acoustic receiver, its unique identity is stored and later transmitted to a visiting ship, telling the fish's survival and location. The Census Pacific shelf listening array achieved more than 5 percent success in tracking salmon, sturgeon, and other fish engaged as Census correspondents.

Wider ranges. When studying distribution, the surprise of finding a species in a new place is as exciting as the discovery of a new species. A species in a new place may indicate the species adapted, the environment changed, or the area was seriously undersampled. During 2006, counts rose to 1 species in the Arctic outside their known range, plus 60 species never before seen over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between Iceland and the Azores. Meanwhile, Census seamount researchers found an abundance of squat lobsters, so named because they appear to squat on the ocean floor, inhabiting seamounts off the New Zealand coast, some of which researchers believe may never have been found before on seamounts.

Needles in haystacks. The span from schools of countless herring down to single animals of a species among thousands collected typifies the range of scale challenging Census' charting. The rich diversity of the isopod crustaceans includes common species and others rarely observed.


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In its exploration of Antarctic seas, the figurative haystack, Census researchers found many new species, especially isopod species, represented by only a single animal, the figurative needle, among thousands of specimens collected.

CeDaMAR photo credit: Southern Ocean isopod, Munnopsis. W. Broekeland © 2005

Dams and survival. Soon after salmon leave a river for the ocean, many perish. For decades people have wondered if salmon that have struggled to reach the river mouth through many dams might be less likely to survive in the open ocean than those that enjoyed youth in a free-flowing river. Initial counts suggest that survival of stocks leaving dammed rivers is comparable to those leaving rivers without dams.

The most complete registry. During 2006, experts in the Gulf of Maine released the most comprehensive list ever created of known species in a marine ecosystem, ,17 in all. Researchers continuously refine and add to the registry, which includes marine life from microscopic phytoplankton up to right whales and from seasonal migrants to year-round residents.

Assessing abundance

Degradation and recovery in estuaries. "The historical studies of the CoML agree with recent studies showing steep declines in most wild populations of every marine animal that people eat," says Dr. Grassle. "The past richness of the oceans in many near shore regions is hard for people today to believe."

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 the fears that exploitation and habitat destruction depleted 0 percent of important species. They also confirmed elimination of 65 percent of seagrass and wetland habitat, a 10 to 1,000-fold degradation of water quality, and accelerated species invasions. More happily, they also found signs of transitions from degradation to recovery where conservation was implemented during the 20th century.

Scarce in time. An expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge captured 00 fish species, several of them not seen since a 110 expedition, while others considered rare were found common. The change in abundance could reflect removal of predators or limited sampling in the past.

Absent in space. Census researchers discovered 70 percent of the world's oceans are shark-free. In an extensive study of the vast abyss below ,000 m, deep-sea scientists found sharks were almost entirely absent and sought physiological and other explanations. Although many sharks live down 1,500 m, they fail to colonize deeper, putting them more easily within reach of fisheries and thus endangered status.

Assessing abundance demands efficiency. Expanding knowledge of diversity with new species requires one specimen, charting distribution requires several, but counting abundance demands examining many.During three explorations of coral reefs, Census experts expedited determination of many of the 1 to million animal species that inhabit coral reefs, using new molecular techniques allowing rapid processing of large samples.

The Census zooplankton team performed the first DNA bar coding of plankton on a ship at sea, telescoping what formerly took three years of work into just three weeks, an approach that may revolutionize the way researchers expand the boundaries of knowledge.

Other marine life dimensions

Marine rush hour commuters. At dusk above Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Census researchers encountered a rush hour, when animals rise to the surface to feed as if returning home for supper, and measured the traffic precisely. Using the world's first long-term, full ocean-depth echo sounder, the scientists observed a daily vertical commute of up to 400 m (higher than the Eiffel Tower) between the twilight or mesopelagic zone, about 500 m down, and the surface layer, where sunlight and photosynthesis prepare food.

Proportion of protected coral reefs. Analysts in the Census network concerned with the future of marine animal populations compiled the first-ever 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 2 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.

Media contacts:

Dr Ian Poiner , AIMS CEO

Telephone : 07 4753 4490, Mobile : 0419 702 652

Email :

Wendy Eller y, AIMS Media Liaison

Telephone : 07 4753 4409 Mobile : 0418 729 265

Email :

Terry Collins, CoML,

Telephone: +1-416-878-8712, +1-416-538-8712

Email :

Darlene Trew Crist

Telephone : +1-401-259-1356,

Sara Hickox ,

Telephone : +1-401-874-6277

National, regional and project media contacts:

Census of Marine Life experts are available for advance interviews. Please call to schedule a time. The full highlights report, including high-resolution photos, video clips and other media resources are online at

About the Census of Marine Life

Support for the Census of Marine Life comes from government agencies concerned with science, environment, and fisheries in a growing list of nations as well as from private companies and foundations (including the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, USA, the Total Corporate Foundation, France and Applied Biosystems, Inc., USA). A complete list of sponsors is available at:‘rnd=27644

The Census is associated or affiliated with several intergovernmental international organizations including the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the UN, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the UN Environment Programme and its World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, and the North Pacific Marine Science Organization. It is also affiliated with international non-governmental organizations including the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research and the International Association of Biological Oceanography of the International Council for Science. The Census is led by an independently constituted international Scientific Steering Committee, whose members serve in their individual capacities, and a growing set of national and regional implementation committees.