Beneath the surface of the Earth’s oceans lurks a strange and wonderful world filled with unique sea creatures that no one has ever seen before. But thousands of the marine animals have begun to surface recently, thanks to an Olympian effort by a consortium of roughly 2000 scientists from 82 countries. The latest findings of the survey, called the Census of Marine Life, were reported this week at the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity in Valencia, Spain. Since 2,000, when the census began, survey scientists have identified 5,300 possible new species (more than 100 have so far gone through the rigorous process to gain the official designation as “new”).
The World Register of Marine Species currently lists more than 120,000 species, with only five percent of the world’s oceans explored. Scientists participating in the Census of Marine Life hope to more than double that number as they continue to dive into unchartered waters through 2008, when the survey is scheduled for completion. (See Susan Cosier’s article “Getting to Know You” in Audubon’s current issue.)
Among the most recent findings is what the researchers called a “brittle star city,” in which tens of millions of brittle stars (related to sea stars and cucumbers) cover an underwater mountain stretching higher than the world’s tallest building. Another surprising discovery was a benthic comb jelly found more than 23,000 feet under the sea—the deepest recorded sighting of the species ever. (And this is no ordinary jelly. The scientists say it flies through the water like a kite on the end of two long “strings.”) In the deep sea off Antarctica one scientific team found octopuses riding an expressway of cold water. Satellite tagging by another group uncovered a “white shark café” in an area between Hawaii and the Baja peninsula where the animals are hanging out for as long as six months—a previously unknown behavior. Add to these discoveries behemoth bacteria in the eastern South Pacific, mammoth mollusks in the Gulf of Mexico, colossal sea stars in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, enormous oysters hiding in the deep waters off the La Chapelle continental slope, and much more.
The census’ main goal of recording new marine species is a means of focusing better fisheries management and helping to protect marine species before they disappear. These photographs illustrate a few of the recent discoveries:
Megaleledone setebos is an Antarctic octopus species that is thought to be the closest living relative to the common ancestor of deep-sea octopuses.
Census researchers from New Zealand hold giant Macroptychaster sea stars that can grow up to nearly two feet.