Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What was the Census of Marine Life?

The international Census of Marine Life culminated in 2010 after a decade of exploration and research on the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the oceans – past, present, and future. More than 2,700 scientists in 80+ countries collaborated to study and synthesize information on marine biodiversity at an unprecedented scope and scale from microbes to whales in all ocean realms. In addition to discovering and describing more than 1,200 new species, the Census documented oceans richer in diversity, more connected through distribution and movements of animals, and more impacted by humans. 

What did the Census accomplish?

The first Census of Marine Life:
•    Established a baseline against which future change can be measured.
•    Created the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (,  the world’s largest online repository of geo-referenced data that will provide data for policy makers, teachers, and students alike for years to come
•    Adapted and refined technology used to explore the global ocean
•    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.
•    Added to what is known about life in the ocean, including formally identifying 1,200 new species and increasing the estimate of life in the ocean from 230,000- to nearly 250,000.
•    Collaborated with the Encyclopedia of Life to complete ~ 90,000 marine species pages.
•    Supported the World Register of Marine Species, which determined that, excluding microbes, about 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 ocean.
•     Proved that a global census was possible and served as a model for large international science programs of the future.
•    Built individual, institutional, national and regional capacity so that, through its young alumni, the Census will contribute to marine life knowledge for decades to come.

Why is this information important?

There is a critical need for better information to fashion the management that will sustain fisheries, conserve diversity, reverse losses of habitat, reduce impacts of pollution, and respond to global climate change. The Census provided a scientific foundation upon which future ocean policy can be developed and marine research progressed. It also created a database, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS), which is a portal or gateway, openly accessible via the Internet (, to over 800 datasets containing information on where and when over 30 million marine organisms have been recorded. The datasets are integrated so they can be seamlessly searched by species name, higher taxonomic level, geographic area, depth, and time; and then map and find environmental data related to the locations.  OBIS allows users to identify biodiversity hotspots and large-scale ecological patterns, analyze distributions of species over time and space, and plot species' locations with temperature, salinity, and depth.

At its 2009 General Assembly, the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission adopted OBIS as one of its programs under its International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange, so OBIS will continue to be a useful tool for many management applications, including providing a means for nations to meet their obligations to the Convention on Biological Diversity to report on the biodiversity in their exclusive economic zones.

Who came up with the idea for the Census of Marine Life?

During the late 1990’s, several leading marine scientists shared their concerns with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that humanity’s understanding of what lived in the oceans lagged far behind our desire and need to know more. The Sloan Foundation was the first entity to provide these diverse scientists with support to come together and develop a strategy that addressed their concerns: conducting a worldwide census to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life—past, present, and future. The 10-year Census of Marine Life officially began in 2000. To learn more

How was the Census structured?

The Census of Marine Life was coordinated by a Secretariat based at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C., and governed by an international Scientific Steering Committee. Thirteen National and Regional Implementation Committees worked under the guidance of an international Scientific Steering Committee and served to strengthen the global reach of the Census in support of marine biodiversity research.

Seventeen projects conduct the research and analysis on six ocean realms that were reported in the first Census of Marine Life in October 2010. The Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research Technology Panel monitored new technologies for observing marine life and recommended when cutting-edge marine technologies were mature enough to be used routinely in Census field projects.

A Synthesis Group organized, integrated, and synthesized the vast information gathered by the Census for 2010. An Education and Outreach Team based at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography's Office of Marine Programs coordinated Census-wide communications, media relations, education, and outreach activities so the scientific results were shared with the world. A Mapping and Visualization Team based at Duke University's Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab is developed and shared methods to display the results of the ten-year Census of Marine Life.

How was the Census funded?

Support for the Census of Marine Life was provided by government agencies concerned with science, environment, and fisheries and from numerous private foundations and corporations. The total investment for the ten-year program was $650 million U.S.

Why study biodiversity?

Biodiversity is one potential measure of the health of an ecosystem. A diverse biological community allows for diverse interactions among the various species— greater competition, predation, and productivity than a non-diverse community. If one species population declines, a diverse system has a greater chance of adjusting to this loss or decline than one that is non-diverse, where the consequences are greater.

What did Census scientists learn?

The first Census of Marine Life found that life in the ocean is richer, more connected, and more altered than expected.  Human impacts began much earlier than previously thought and were broader in scope than imagined.  Species recovery was also documented when actions were taken to stop depletion.

Census researchers found life everywhere they looked, including inhospitable places on the bottom of the ocean without oxygen.  They rediscovered species thought to be extinct and added some 1,200 to the list of formally described new species, with another 5,000 or more waiting to be described, while increasing the number of known marine species from 230,00 to nearly 250,000.

Census scientists tracked migration routes and identified areas where animals go to breed and feed, knowledge that policy makers can use to help protect them.  The Census laid the groundwork and developed the tools for a new ocean biological observing system that will be key to understanding what needs to be done to protect ocean resources of the future.
A complete review of Census findings can be found at

How many new species were discovered?

Census scientists discovered and formally described an estimated 1,200 new species, with another 5,000 or so awaiting formal description.  New species were discovered at a much faster rate than the capacity to describe them.   While the discovery of a new species is always exciting, the greater contribution to our understanding of marine life is what Census scientists learned about the diversity and distribution of marine life in the global oceans.

How many different species live in the world’s oceans?

Prior to the Census, the number of known species in the ocean was estimated at 230,000, but with the increased knowledge gained over the last decade, this estimate has been increased to nearly 250,000.  Scientists believe that there as many as three times this number are yet to be discovered and named. The total number of marine species in the global ocean, excluding microbes, could surpass one million or more.

How was technology being used?

Recent technological advances have made it possible for scientists to explore previously inaccessible places, including the deepest, darkest, and hottest areas of the global ocean. Using such advanced technology, Census scientists achieved many scientific “firsts,” such as finding the hottest hydrothermal vent and the deepest active hot vent to date, mapping the largest cold seep site in the world, recording the longest electronically-recorded migration, and investigating marine life living in some of the coldest conditions on the planet.

Census scientists used marine animals as ocean observers so they could experience their watery world much as the animals do. By tagging and tracking marine animals, scientists gained an insider’s view to migration routes, breeding and eating habits, and size and behavior of populations—insights that hadn’t been possible before.

What will follow the first Census of Marine Life?

Several of the Census of Marine Life projects will continue on, and some have joined together to form new research programs, such as the International Network for Scientific Investigations of Deep-Sea Ecosystems. On the policy and managerial side, the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative, spawned in part by the Census, will continue to use the Census network and data as they work towards protection of the open ocean and deep seas. 

The marine biodiversity community will meet at the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity in Aberdeen in September 2011 to discuss the next phase of research and consider the big scientific questions that remain and how they fit into societal needs. Certainly, the insights gained by the first Census of Marine Life will provide a solid framework for future marine research for decades to come.