The decade long Census of Marine Life (2000-2010), the largest global research programme on marine biodiversity, has been completed and the findings, delivered on October 4, suggest that there may be 1 million to 1.4 million marine species, excluding microbes, living on earth.

The census resulted in the discovery and description of more than 1200 marine species excluding microbes and the collection of more than 5000 new species, also excluding microbes, which are yet to be described.

This will now be in addition to the 250,000 species formally described so far in science literature.

Among the new species discovered and described is a crab so unusual that it warranted a new family designation “Kiwidae”, named after the mythological “Kiwa”, the Polynesian goddess of shellfish. It was found south of Easter Island. Other new species discovered include a blind lobster, a new species of shrimp designated “Hippolyte catagrapha”, a finned octopod which flaps a large pair of ear-like fins to swim, a

“squid worm” from the Celebes Sea in South East Asia and a vent snail inhabiting deep sea hydrothermal vents and harbouring chemoautotrophic symbionts in its gills which provide the snail with all the nutrients it needs. Interestingly, the snail found near a vent off Tokyo is the only one discovered to date. The census has also estimated up to 1 billion marine microbes.

More than 80 per cent of the species discovered from the Australian region, 70 per cent from Japan, 75 per cent from the Mediterranean deep sea, 58 per cent from Antarctica, 38 per cent from southern Africa and 10 per cent from Europe, are yet to be described. The census has also mapped marine highways and rest stops. Scientists traced the blue finned tuna migrating from western United States and Japan three times in a single year and one grey headed albatross flew around the world in just 46 days.

Largest scientific collaboration

One of the largest scientific collaborations ever conducted, more than 2700 scientists from more than eighty countries with 640 participating institutions, spent 9000 days at sea on more than 540 expeditions to conclude that “marine biodiversity of the planet is richer, more connected, more altered than expected”. The census called for a global investment of US $ 650 million and another US $ 75 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

While most of what mankind knows about the ocean is between the surface and the depths of approximately 1000 feet, the census scientists even explored the 10,000 meter deep Marianas Trench south east of Japan. The census reveals what, where and how much lives and hides in global oceans.

Ian Pioner, Chairman of the census steering committee said, “This cooperative international 21st century voyage has systematically defined for the first time both the known and the vast unknown, unexplored ocean. The beauty, wonder and importance of marine life are hard to overstate.”

He added that all surface life depends on life inside and beneath the oceans. Sea life provides half our oxygen, a lot of our food and regulates the climate. “We are all citizens of the sea.” The census has enabled mankind to be better acquainted with our fellow travellers of the sea and their vast habitat on this globe, he said.