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The Census of Marine Life - A Decade of Discovery
By Sandrah Gurash, October 4, 2010 @ 06:30 PM (EST)
Source: Census of Marine Life

In 2000, the Census of Marine Life was founded with the goal to ”discover new kids of life and to catalog and estimate the total diversity of life in the vast global oceans.”  The founding scientists organized a Census around three questions:


  1. What did live in the oceans?

  2. What does live in the oceans?

  3. What will live in the oceans?

Through a combination of studying previous research and more then 540 ocean expeditions, 2,700 scientists from more then 80 different countries spent 10 years gathering data, archiving nearly 30 million observations to complete the first Census of Marine Life.

The Census estimates the known marine species to be nearly 250,000, including approximately 6,000 potentially new species, 1,200  for which they were able to complete formal descriptions.  It also compiled the first regional and global comparisons of marine species diversity and helped to create the first comprehensive list of known marine species (over 190,000). 

Even with their extensive work, the scientists involved in the project, “could not reliably estimate the total number of species, the kinds of life, known and unknown, in the ocean. It could logically extrapolate to at least a million kinds of marine life that earn the rank of species and to tens or even hundreds of millions of kinds of microbes.”  They found life everywhere they looked, at all temperatures and extremes of marine habitats.

On the technology front, the Census proved new technology, such as DNA barcoding for identification.  It also pioneered a global ocean tracking network using an array of microphones, and it invented reef monitoring structures that standardize a ssessment of reef l ife.

In the summary report, the Census determined five categories of causes separating the known, unknown and unknowable of marine life:

  • the invisibility of the lost past

  • the vast expanse of the oceans

  • difficulties of assembling knowledge of parts into knowledge of a whole

  • blinders we put on ourselves by choosing not to learn or spend

  • unpredictable disturbances such as tsunamis.


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