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20,000 New Species Under the Sea

Who lives in the ocean? The world’s first census of the sea introduces thousands of new creatures, and the impact we’re having on them.
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When thousands of biologists from more than 80 countries collaborated on the Census of Marine Life, they knew the underwater world was largely a mystery. But they didn’t realize how much they could discover, even in their own back yards.

In what scientists called the first global effort of its kind, the census, released in October 2010 after a 10-year effort, increased the estimate of known marine species from about 230,000 to 250,000. It found more than 6,000 potential new species and produced descriptions of more than 1,200 of them.

Turtle photo by Martin Klein

Photo by Martin Klein/

“We found new species everywhere we looked, even in some of the most well-known areas,” says Paul Snelgrove, who wrote a book based on the studies, Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life.

The findings not only lay the foundation for future research but offer insight on the extent of human impact on the ocean.

The new species include a six-and-a-half-pound lobster in Madagascar and deep-sea octopus, squid, and fish.

Scientists also spotted never-before-seen behaviors in animals, says Jim Bolger, executive director of the Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking Project, a program of the census. For example, scientists thought green sturgeon stayed near the California and Oregon streams where they are born, but they instead migrate up to 1,000 miles north to Vancouver Island in the winter—following the opposite route of most migrating species.

Scientists also say the research offers a sobering look at thousands of years of human impact on ocean health and fish populations.

Census of Marine Life video still
What Lies Beneath

Video: The Census of Marine Life reveals more than 6,000 potentially new species living in our oceans.

“A lot of these resources have been depleted before we really had the chance to characterize them,” Snelgrove says, citing the near-disappearance of tuna in the North Sea and even the shrinking size of prizewinning game fish in Florida.

The census has already changed environmental policy. Findings on the green sturgeon led to expansion of protected habitat for the fish.

Historically, most human damage to the ocean was caused by overfishing, Snelgrove says, but biologists believe the biggest impacts of the future will come from ocean acidification and warming. They are studying how these factors will affect marine life.

“There’s still spectacular life in the ocean that’s well worth preserving,” he says. “It gives me a lot of hope that it’s well worth the effort.”

Lynsi Burton wrote this article for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Lynsi is a freelance writer based in Bremerton, Wash.


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