First census of marine life completed

05 October 2010

From the ghost-like sea-angel to the flamingo tongue snail, these are just two of the thousands of amazing creatures uncovered in the first Census of Marine Life (CoML), released today.

An amphipod (shrimp-like creature) found near Elephant Island, Antarctic Peninsula.

An amphipod (shrimp-like creature) found near Elephant Island, Antarctic Peninsula. © Cédric d’Udekem d’Acoz

The huge 10-year study involved 2,700 scientists from 80 nations and has revealed what, where, and how much marine life there is in the world’s oceans.

The variety of life uncovered in the census is much more than many experts had imagined. So far, 1,200 new species have been officially named and there are 5000 more awaiting descriptions.

The total number of marine species described is now about 244,000, but experts estimate there could be more than 1 million. And new species are being described at a rate of about 1,900 per year.

As well as identifying new species, the census mapped animal migratory routes, identified places of high and low diversity, reported on how animal size and numbers changed, and much more.

The ghost-like sea-angel is a swimming sea slug that lives in the deep Antarctic waters.

The ghost-like sea-angel Platybrachium antarcticum, is a swimming sea slug that lives in the deep Antarctic waters. © Russ Hopcroft, University of Alaska Fairbanks

The census data can be used as a baseline to monitor how future human impacts affect sea life, such as over fishing, oil spills and other pollution, habitat loss, and warming sea temperatures. This information also helps nations and the international Convention on Biological Diversity select priority areas to protect.

Museum research

Natural History Museum scientists have been involved in CoML research, making use of its world-class specimen collections and expert taxonomists (scientists who name, describe and classify organisms into groups).

‘It’s not just the number of species which we need, it’s their names too,’ says Museum’s marine life expert Geof Boxshall.

To understand how marine ecosystems function, ecologists need comprehensive and up-to-date lists of living marine species. 

A fathead fish from the north-west of New Zealand.

A fathead, Psychrolutes microporos.  This fish is related to sculpins and blobfishes. It was trawled at a depth of between 1013m - 1340m north-west of New Zealand. © NORFANZ founding parties photographer Kerryn Parkingson, and thanks to Peter McMillan and Andrew Stewart

‘Without these, it is like trying to run a large company when you don’t know how many employees you have or what their names are!’ says Boxshall.

‘Museum scientists have played a central role in the development of the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS).

‘This is a global initiative to inventory all marine species in an online database and it involves about 240 taxonomic experts from all over the world.

‘With the support of the Census of Marine Life we have already managed to capture over 200,000 of these names in one list – an index of life in the oceans from bacteria to whales.’

So, with the long list of species still to describe, and 95% of the ocean depths still to explore, there’ll be many more insights to come as a result of this landmark report..

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