Census of the oceans

Ten years of work reveals new species, amazing diversity

During a census, a group of people or other animals get counted. A census of a particular country is used to figure out how many people live there, which means that somewhere, people spend a lot of time counting.

For the last ten years, a large group of scientists have also spent a lot of time counting. They’ve been working on an exploration of creatures that live underwater. The project is called the Census of Marine Life, and the research was designed to answer three main questions.

What did live in the oceans? What does live in the oceans? What will live in the oceans?

During the project, the number of scientists involved grew to 2,700, and they came from 80 different countries. These scientists studied historical documents closely and, all together, went on 540 expeditions. They published thousands of scientific papers, spent $650 million and collected millions of specimens from various aquatic environments.

More than 6,000 of those specimens may be new species. A species is a particular kind of living creature. (Human beings, for example, are all members of the same species, Homo sapiens.) Already, researchers doing the Census of Marine Life have described 1,200 new species, and they’re hard at work studying thousands more. Many of those new species are invertebrates, or creatures that don’t have backbones.

These creatures look like they belong on another planet. There are fish with tongues, crabs with hairy pincers and a transparent sea cucumber that appears to have intestines. (See the slideshow featuring some of these oddities.)

When the Census of Marine Life is added to work done before it, scientists have, the Census researchers report, identified more than 190,000 different species that live underwater.

In addition to counting, scientists used new technology to look at where animals live. Census researchers placed electronic tags on some animals and discovered a place dubbed the “White Shark Café” — a spot in the Pacific Ocean popular among predators. The Café is roughly halfway between Hawaii and Mexico. (See the map.)

Scientists launched the study ten years ago because they were worried that humans don’t know enough about the kinds of creatures that dwell underwater. These researchers were right — as work from the last ten years demonstrates, the oceans host a wild variety of living organisms that look like nothing else we’ve seen on Earth.

The Census is only the beginning, a preview of the strange things scientists will probably turn up in Earth’s wettest environments.

POWER WORDS (from the Yahoo! Kids Dictionary)

census An official, usually periodic enumeration of a population, often including the collection of related demographic information

invertebrate Lacking a backbone or spinal column; not vertebrate

marine Of or relating to the sea

expedition A journey undertaken by a group of people with a definite objective

biodiversity The number and variety of organisms found within a specified geographic region

Stephen Ornes lives in Nashville, Tenn., and his family has two rabbits, six chickens and a cat. He has written for Science News Explores since 2008 on topics including lightning, feral pigs, big bubbles and space junk.

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