About the Census
A DECADE OF DISCOVERY
US$ 650 million
2,600+ scientific publications
6,000+ potential new species
30 million distribution records and counting
These numbers only begin to describe the scope of the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year international effort undertaken in to assess the diversity (how many different kinds), distribution (where they live), and abundance (how many) of marine life—a task never before attempted on this scale. The Census stimulated the discipline of marine science by tackling these issues globally, and engaging some 2,700 scientists from around the globe, who participated in 540 expeditions and countless hours of land-based research. The scientific results were reported on October 4, 2010 at the Royal Institution in London.
The first Census of Marine Life produced the most comprehensive inventory of known marine life ever compiled and cataloged it as a basis for future research—30 million records as of January 2011 and counting! This first baseline picture of ocean life—past, present, and future—can be used to forecast, measure, and understand changes in the global marine environment, as well as to inform the management and conservation of marine resources. The Census investigated life in the global ocean from microbes to whales, from top to bottom, from pole to pole, bringing together the world’s preeminent marine biologists, who shared ideas, data, and results. During their 10 years of discovery, Census scientists discovered new species, habitats, and connections and unlocked many of the ocean’s long-held secrets. They found and formally described more than1, 200 new marine species, with another 5,000 or more in the pipeline awaiting formal description. They discovered areas in the ocean where animals congregate, from white shark cafés in the open ocean to an evening rush hour in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to a shoal of fish the size of Manhattan off the coast of New Jersey, USA. They unearthed a rare biosphere in the microbial world, where scarce species lie in wait to become dominant if change goes their way, and found species believed to reside at both poles. While unlocking many secrets, investigators also documented long-term and widespread declines in marine life as well as resilience of the ocean in areas where recovery was apparent.
Along with secrets came surprises. The existence of giant mats of microbes, ranked among Earth’s largest masses of life, a Jurassic shrimp (Neoglyphea neocaledonica) thought to have been extinct 50 million years ago, and multi-cellular animals (three species of the animal phylum Loricifera) thriving without oxygen at sea bottom, where only microbes were thought to survive, were but a few of the astonishing discoveries over the decadal study.
Along with surprises came extremes. Census scientists, for example, uncovered the deepest, hottest, most northerly and most southerly hydrothermal “black smoker” vents known to science, found the world’s largest biotic ecosystem created by a single type of organism, and traveled along as a sooty shearwater chased endless summer on its 64,000-kilometer (40,000-mile) pole-to-pole journey. Scientists also reported the existence of everything from a giant squid to 38,000 different kinds of bacteria in a liter of seawater. The implications of these discoveries reveal the extent of the unknown.
The Census focused new “binoculars” of technology into the ocean, providing a sharper focus on the world below the waves. Novel and reconfigured exploration tools used in many previously unexplored locations helped to fill in the pieces of the huge biogeographic puzzle that is the global ocean. These new vision-expanding tools included genetic barcoding techniques that automate and speed identification of species, helping to compensate for a shortage of marine taxonomists, tagging and tracking methodologies that provide an insiders’ view of this watery world, and acoustic innovations, providing abundance assessments of marine populations heretofore not possible. While advancing technology, scientists also set to work on standardizing sampling protocols making it possible to compare “apples to oranges” across the global ocean, revealing a clearer picture of what lives below the ocean’s surface. These tools and strategies pave the way for the next generation of ocean explorers.
In addition to extensive contributions (more than 2,600 papers) to the scientific literature, the Census has created major legacies that range from the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) database, the world’s largest open access, online repository of spatially referenced marine life data that will continue on under the auspices of the UNESCO International Oceanographic Commission's program, the International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange, to 13 National and Regional Implementation Committees that cross geographic, cultural, and political boundaries to orchestrate studies of the world’s ocean. It also has created and supported frameworks to aggregate information about all marine life, making it possible to estimate the number of species newly described by the entire marine taxonomic community. It has partnered with many to advance what is known and knowable about marine life. These partners include the Encyclopedia of Life, the World Register of Marine Species, and the Marine Barcode of Life, and Catalogue of Life projects. The Census also has served as a model for the Ocean Tracking Network. In total, the Census has laid a solid foundation for directing future collaborative marine biodiversity research, serving as a model for how huge scientific undertakings can be structured for success, and has provided needed science to help guide policy for a changing ocean.
Such advances would not have been made without the vision for a “Census of Marine Life” and the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which provided initial funding for the international infrastructure that allowed for, and encouraged, scientific collaboration among peers and served to help leverage the US$650 million ultimately dedicated to this 10-year effort. The work realized by the Census of Marine Life, while substantial, has only scratched the surface of what remains to be learned about what lives and may live in the world’s ocean. The Age of Discovery is not over!
Summary of Census of Marine Life Achievements
• Established a baseline of marine life diversity, distribution, and abundance against which future change can be measured.
• Aggregated more than 30 million of species-level records obtained before and outside the Census and added millions more from its own field work, including 1,200 newly discovered and described species. Another 5,000 or more await formal description.
• Created the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, the world’s largest online repository of geo-referenced data that nations can use to develop national and regional assessments and to meet their obligations to the Convention on Biological Diversity and other international commitments.
• Mapped migration routes and breeding areas that can be used to protect animals’ oceanic transit routes.
• Identified well-explored areas and those where further exploration is warranted.
• Showed through studies of environmental history that some marine habitats and living resources have been impacted by humans for thousands of years. With protection recovery is slow but possible. Coastal and enclosed seas are the most impacted.
• Determined that in the deep sea, past impacts were mainly from disposal of waste and litter. Today, fisheries, and hydrocarbon and mineral extraction have the greatest impact In the future, climate change is predicted to have the greatest impact.
• Collaborated with the Encyclopedia of Life to complete ~90,000 marine species pages and provided and continues to serve as the marine component of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
• Supported the World Register of Marine Species, which confirmed that, excluding microbes approximately 250,000 valid marine species have been formally described in the scientific literature, with an estimated at least 750,000 more species remaining to be described.Also, estimated that more than a billion types of microbes may live in the oceans.
• Built individual, institutional, national and regional capacity. Through its young alumni, the Census will contribute to marine life knowledge for decades to come.