“Ithe meaning is Has always been an odd choice of name for the third planet from the Sun. After all, an alien examining it through a telescope would notice that two-thirds of its surface is covered, not by Earth, but by it. oceans of water,
Because humans are land-grazing animals, much of the Earth remains under-explored. Marine biologists think the oceans could host more than 2m species of marine animals, of which they have cataloged perhaps a tenth so far. oceanographer Favors point out that scientists have mapped nearly all of Mars’ surface, but less than a quarter of the ocean floor.
A new initiative hopes to change that. The Ocean Census, launched in London on 27 April, aims to discover 100,000 new species of marine animals over the coming decade. It is supported by NEKTON, a British marine-research institute, and the Nippon Foundation, Japan’s largest charitable foundation. Its first ship, the Norwegian icebreaker Crown Prince HaakonOn 29 April left for the Barents Sea.
The initiative is happening now for two reasons. One is that, the longer scientists wait, the less likely it is to catalog. Climate change is warming the oceans, as well as making them more acidic as carbon dioxide dissolves in the water. Already nearly half the world’s coral reefs – believed to be home to around 25% of all ocean species – have been lost. Oliver Steeds, founder and CEO of Nekton, says that one of the ocean census’ priorities will be to list the species at greatest risk from climate change. Otherwise, he says, there is a risk of “burning down the forest and not knowing what was before”. [it] was lost”.
The second reason is technical. Marine biologists discover about 2,000 new species per year, a rate hardly changed since Darwin’s time. The Ocean Census is betting it can go faster. “Cyber taxonomy”, for example, includes feeding dna sequences from animals into computers, which can quickly decide whether it is a new species or not. The ability to describe new creatures, as well as the ability to simply list them, has also been improved. Fancy cameras on remotely operated vehicles, for example, allow scientists to laser scan deep-sea creatures like jellyfish without removing them from their habitat. Just as the extreme pressure of the deep sea is fatal to humans, taking this type of jellyfish to the surface for examination turns it into a sticky slime.
The Ocean Census is not the first attempt to conduct a systematic survey of life in the oceans. The Census of Marine Life was a ten-year effort that began in 2000 to look for new species. The Global Ocean Sampling Campaign, which ran from 2004 to 2006, aimed to catalog microbial life in the ocean by sampling waters from around the world. (It was funded by Craig Venter, a biologist-cum-entrepreneur, and carried out on his private yacht.)
What exactly the new effort might do is impossible to predict with certainty. But history shows that it will be fruitful. Half a century ago, scientists discovered hot vents on the ocean floor that were home to organisms living happily in conditions that until then were considered injurious to life. These days, such holes are a plausible candidate for the origin of all life on Earth.
There are other practical benefits as well. Many drugs, for example, originally come from biological compounds. An ocean full of unlisted life would almost certainly prove a rich seam from which to mine more. sea snail, conus magusIt was recently discovered to produce a pain-relieving compound 1,000 times more potent than morphine.
To help put its data to use, the Ocean Census plans to make it freely available to scientists and the public, who will be able to scour it for anything useful or surprising. The point of exploration, after all, is that you never know what you might find.
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