The largest marine census ever conducted – that is, a count of the organisms living in Earth’s oceans – drew to a close in 2010. It’s called the Census of Marine Life (CoML). Renowned ocean researcher Jesse Ausubel serves as the project director. He said this Census has changed our understanding of ocean life.
Jesse Ausubel: The total number of marine microbes known and described when the census began a bit more than a decade ago was only about 5,000. And, now, we have DNA sequences for hundreds of thousands. A gram of sand or mud at the bottom of the sea floor may have between 5,000 and 20,000 different forms of microbial life in it.
He said experts have used a combination of DNA analysis and video, acoustic and cell phone technology to figure out what’s living where, beneath the sea.
Jesse Ausubel : We’ve covered a lot of the world. We haven’t covered everyplace, but we have produced what we call a new biogeography. It’s like neighborhoods. It’s at least a start to the global picture.
Ausubel listed things his Census has help uncover, such as the location of the hottest ocean vent, and the status of herring as the world’s most widely distributed fish. He said the CoML has identified more than 200 thousand different named marine species -from plankton to minnows to sharks. He estimates that there are still more than a million forms of complex ocean life yet to be discovered.
Jesse Ausubel: Part of what the program offers to humanity is just the wonder of the world around us, including the incredible beauty of many forms of marine life. But the program is also intended to produce practical societal benefits.
One way the census is doing that, he said, is by identifying “baselines” of marine life across the globe, so humans now and into the future can pinpoint precisely how ocean life is changing. The census has also helped identify biological hotspots that merit international marine protection.
One of his favorite marine hotspots identified by the Census of Marine Life is inside the largest mountain range on Earth – the mid-Atlantic ridge – which is actually underwater, and extends all the way from Iceland to the South Atlantic.
Jesse Ausube: There’s a huge gap that goes throughout this mountain range, it called the Charlie Gibbs fracture zone, it turns out there’s lots of interesting life on both sides of this zone, you can think of it kind of like the Grand Canyon of the oceans, that’s likely to become a protected area.
He said that information about where life exists has also been used in places like Boston harbor, where CoML data has been used to identify shipping lanes so that sea traffic will have the least possible impact on marine life. Ausubel added that we humans impact ocean life in more ways than we generally imagine.
Jesse Ausubel: There’s a enormous attention right now to changes in weather and climate. But if you could turn the clock back 100 years, the climate wouldn’t be that different from today. But other things would be very different. One of them is light we’ve added a huge amount of light. And of course many forms of light are sensitive to light…different kind of microbes. And we really have very little knowledge of the ecological effects of nighttime illumination. Similarly we’ve added lots and lots of sound. In the oceans, we’ve estimated that half the amount of noise now comes from human activity (from marine motors, seismic testing, etc). Animals themselves of course use sound to communicate in the oceans. So I think this question of behavior of not only whales but other forms of life might differ is a real question.
He also credited politics – namely, the end of the cold war – with aiding the cooperation between nations so that scientists can now study the deep sea. He said international cooperation is what enabled the Census of Marine Life.
As of the fall of 2010, the collective digital archive of the Census of Marine Life – or CoML – had grown to 30 million observations, with contributions from 2,700 scientists hailing from 80 nations.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.