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Astonishing Life In Ocean's Depths: Major Progress Made Towards Historic Census Of Marine Life

November 10, 2008
Census of Marine Life
In a report on progress toward the first Census of Marine Life, more than 2,000 scientists from 82 nations announce astonishing examples of recent new finds from the world's ocean depths. Among revelations in fourth interim global highlights report are the Antarctic ancestry of many octopus species and the discovery of Behemoth bacteria, colossal sea stars and mammoth mollusks.

The 2,000-strong community of Census of Marine Life scientists from 82 nations has announced astonishing examples of recent new finds from the world’s ocean depths. Mollusk expert Patricia Miloslavich (Venezuela), Census co-senior scientist: “We are beginning to pull together a picture and clarify the complicated and interconnected global drivers of marine biodiversity patterns and changes, and we are starting to see the conservation-related implications and benefits, from the small coves of the near-shore to the vast abyss.”

Antarctic ancestry of many deep-sea octopuses worldwide

Within their mandate "to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life in the oceans – past, present, and future,” Census of Antarctic Marine Life scientists report the first molecular evidence that a large proportion of deep sea octopus species worldwide evolved from common ancestor species that still exist in the Southern Ocean.

Octopuses started migrating to new ocean basins more than 30 million years ago when, as Antarctica cooled and a large icesheet grew, nature created a “thermohaline expressway,” a northbound flow of tasty frigid water with high salt and oxygen content. 

Isolated in new habitat conditions, many different species evolved; some octopuses, for example, losing their defensive ink sacs – pointless at perpetually dark depths.

This revelation into the global distribution and diversity of deep sea fauna, to be reported Nov. 11 in the journal Cladistics, was made possible by intensive sampling during Census International Polar Year expeditions.

Other findings are listed below.

Distribution of sea life

Scientists discover both a “White Shark Café” and a “sturgeon playground” in the Pacific, as others explore life on a “new continent” in the mid-Atlantic, in oceanic canyons, around Earth’s deepest hot vents, and in the world’s coldest, saltiest seawater;

Deep sea diversity

Deep sea explorers discover new forms of life, including behemoth bacteria, colossal sea stars, astonishing Antarctic amphipods and a mammoth mollusk, and find familiar species in many new places.  Experts also estimate that, beyond the 16,000 marine fish species already known to science, another 4,000 await discovery, many of them in the tropics.


Researchers find a sea floor carpet of bugs and a city of brittle stars, and document bluefin tuna abundance in the early 1900s by scouring fishery reports, fishing magazines and other records.

Meanwhile, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System has grown to include more than 120,000 species. And a rapidly-expanding reference library of DNA barcodes of marine species recently helped reveal inaccurate labeling of sushi in New York City and elsewhere.  

As well, the national and regional networks expediting much of the Census work expanded from 10 to 12 since 2006.  They and the field projects of the Census established precedent-setting ethical standards for marine research.

As more than 700 delegates gather for the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity (Valencia, Spain Nov. 11-15), organized by the Census’s European affiliate program on Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning, the report details major progress towards the first ever marine life census, for release in October, 2010. 

Other research highlights

1)    Exploring a “new continent” in mid-Atlantic: MAR-ECO ( scientists describe their work as “surveying a new continent half way between America and Europe.” Sampling along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at depths down to 2,500 meters, they find many hundreds of species rare or unknown elsewhere in the world and collect environmental data to help explain their distribution and abundance. 

2)    World’s deepest known active hot vent: ChEss ( scientists in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge explore the world’s deepest known active hot vent, field named Ashadze, over 4,100 meters deep, dominated by anemones, polychaete worms and shrimp.   They also discover marine environments with little or no oxygen harboring more life than expected.

3)    Bacterial mats in Black Sea: ChEss scientists also find reefs deep in the Black Sea made of bacterial mats using methane (natural gas) as an energy source, the bacteria forming spectacular chimneys up to four meters high. Such reefs could contribute key insights into mechanisms controlling emissions of methane, an important greenhouse gas, from the ocean to the atmosphere.

4)    Brittle Star City: Exploring off the coast of New Zealand, CenSeam ( researchers capture images of a novel “Brittle Star City,” whose inhabitants colonize the peak of a seamount – an underwater summit taller than the world’s tallest building. In a swirling circumpolar current flowing at roughly four kilometers per hour, tens of millions of brittle stars live arm tip to arm tip. The current kept away would-be predators while delivering an ample supply of food that residents of Brittle Star City collected simply by raising their arms.

5)    Surprisingly different twins: NaGISA ( nearshore scientists in the Alaskan Arctic find a site with a rocky seafloor, rare along the normally soft and silty Arctic coastline. The hard substrate hosts a highly diverse community compared to surrounding soft bottom habitat.  Comparison of this new site to a similar site surveyed by Census researchers in 2002 shows surprisingly different communities. Census nearshore scientists collaborating with local agencies also discover new species in the Aleutian archipelago, including a kelp, sea anemones, chitons, snails, and sea stars.

6)    Pacific hotspots: TOPP ( researchers discover eddies of warm water in the Pacific may meld, forming hotspots in the open sea that support elevated levels of tiny phytoplankton that form the base of the marine food web. These green meadows in the vast Pacific in turn concentrate species from all tiers of the food web – from shrimp to large predators like tuna, seabirds, and whales.

7)    Seep mega-sites: COMARGE ( and ChEss scientists discover more lively communities flourishing off cold gases such as methane seeping out of the sea floor. Around New Zealand, they map the “Builder’s Pencil” site covering about 180,000 square meters, among Earth’s largest known seep sites. Sensitive to human activities despite their depth, the communities keep revealing unique features. Finding both potential new species and scars from deep-water trawls by fishing vessels on the scientific surveys suggests the urgency for further conservation of these fragile habitats.

8)    Philippine firsts: In the first deep-sea work in the area, COMARGE researchers sample to a depth of 2,300 meters, collecting about 300 fish and 400 mollusc species for barcoding. Some 320 decapod crustaceans are photographed, displaying their beauty and aiding future identification of many unique and subtly distinct specimens. 

In 2008, COMARGE investigators return to explore the Philippine margin of the South China Sea, between 100 and 2,200 meters depth. Discoveries include the first Philippine record of the deep-water stony coral Lophelia pertusa, the first living specimen of Acharax bartschi (a large bivalve living in symbiosis with bacteria), rare deep-water snails living on a dog’s skull that had washed out to sea, and a likely new species of shrimp belonging to a group only known from hydrothermal vents. The trawl also collected many plastic shopping bags.

9)    Potential new marine protected area, Africa: While largely unexplored, the rich Western Indian Ocean, including the Mozambique channel, suffers destructive fishing practices, such as use of dynamite. Census-affiliated explorers with the Sub-Sahara African Committee chart a proposed marine protected area off Tanga, Tanzania. Using SCUBA and remotely operated vehicles, Tanzanian scientists and students join international researchers to survey life along transects that could be periodically revisited, collecting samples for identification and barcoding. 

10)    Life in coldest, saltiest seawater: ArcOD ( researchers studying life in the Arctic find temperatures of –25°C in sea ice channels where brine is more than six times saltier than regular sea water.  Representing the coldest conditions in the global ocean, researchers find sea ice algae, such as diatoms, and flagellates thriving in concentrations of thousands of individuals per liter.

11)    100 new species and records near Hawaii: CReefs ( experts census biodiversity in the French Frigate Shoals, the world’s largest, fully protected marine area in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Using a variety of new and proven methods over a diverse range of habitats, the team logs more than 100 species and new records.

12)    Carpet of bugs: COMARGE researchers describe a new species of amphipod, Ampelisca mississippiana, inhabiting the head of the Mississippi Canyon about 460 meters deep in the Gulf of Mexico. These small crustaceans (less than 6 millimeters in length) and living in tubes, carpet the seabed in densities up to 12,000 individuals per square meter. Based on its abundance and the stabilizing effects this “carpet of bugs” has on sediments, researchers believe this amphipod may have great ecological importance.

13)    Deepest comb jelly: CMarZ ( explorers find a potential new species of comb jelly, or ctenophore, at the record depth of 7,217meters in the Ryukyu Trench near Japan – the deepest ever recorded siting of this unique species, that flies like a kite on the end of two long “strings” attached to the bottom.  The discovery raises questions about the availability of food resources at such depths, which had not been thought capable of supporting predators like this one.

14)    Evolutionary mollusk: In the Southern Ocean, CAML ( researchers find many potential new species including sea cucumbers, sponges and komokiaceans – little known protozoa living in the depths of the ocean resemble the organisms that form chalk. They also collect a rare mollusk, named Laevipilina antarctica, believed to play a role in how segmentation evolved in marine invertebrates.

15)    Arctic jellies galore: In the Canada Basin of the Arctic Ocean, ArcOD researchers find several new species and more than 50 taxonomic categories of gelatinous zooplankton. Almost two-thirds are medusae, one-fifth siphonophores, and one-tenth larvaceans. The first new species formally described from the expedition was named Sigambra healyae, in honor of the research vessel, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

16)    85 new zooplankton species: CMarZ scientists discover at least 85 new species of zooplankton, small drifting and swimming marine animals. Four genera and one family were officially deemed new to science, with many more expected to follow. In the Atlantic Ocean from Germany to South Africa, scientists collect zooplankton in a range from the surface to below 5,000 meters. Taxonomic experts and geneticists identify and barcode the DNA from hundreds of species. As expected, several new species of small crustaceans called ostracods or seed shrimp and other groups are found. 

17)    Antarctica’s big amphipod: CAML scientists exploring a 10,000 kilometer portion of the Antarctic Weddell Sea made suddenly accessible by the collapse of the Larsen A and B ice shelves sample an estimated 1,000 species. Of these, four presumed new species of cnidarians (organisms related to coral, jelly fish and sea anemones) are found, as well as 15 potentially new amphipod (shrimp-like) species, including one of Antarctica’s biggest-ever amphipod crustaceans, nearly 10 centimeters long.

18)    Spectacular species in Celebes Sea: Zooplankton researchers with CMarZ travel to a biodiversity hot spot in the Celebes Sea in the southern Philippines, uncovering unexpected richness and diversity of marine life from the surface to the almost totally unexplored deep waters.  Divers collect a remarkable variety of fragile and beautiful gelatinous species, while video cameras and collect images and organisms from depths beyond the divers' reach.

19)    Surprising species richness: Recent advances in technology are opening up remote frontiers – deep-sea canyons. COMARGE researchers aboard the RRS James Cook off Portugal find that species richness was almost double in the more active Nazaré Canyon than in Lisbon Canyon. This is despite Lisbon Canyon receiving a substantial supply of river-borne organic matter that would foster large populations of filter-feeding organisms.

20)    11,130 known species in South African waters: Experts with the Census’ Sub-Sahara African Committee estimate 6,000 more species, primarily smaller marine animals, are yet to be discovered in South African waters, which are already known to feature some 11,130 species. A new shrimp (Hippolyte) and the first record of the enigmatic group Myzostomida from the region are discovered in False Bay, the most sampled site on the African coast.

21)    870+ squat lobster species: COMARGE scientists list 870 known species of squat lobsters and create an electronic library of relevant literature. Squat lobsters are colorful decapod crustaceans found in all oceans, at all depths, and in all marine habitats, but are especially abundant on continental margins.

22)    Antarctic expressway: In the Southern Ocean, Census CAML explorers find evidence that deep sea octopuses ride the “Antarctic thermohaline expressway.”  The northbound expressway is a mass of sea water with a high salt density caused by the ice that forms at the surface around the Antarctic, the water cascading like cream.

They find as well that sea birds feed on Antarctic zooplankton when the tiny organisms aggregate at a thermal front.

23)    Animals in new places: ArcOD explorers make the first record of many marine animals in many areas of the Canada Basin. These include abundant and diverse ctenophore (comb jellies) under Arctic pack ice and a dense bed of sea cucumbers in what might be a pockmark. They also record more squid than ever before in the Arctic deep sea, and document the importance of sea ice ridges for marine life in the region.

24)    White Shark Café: Satellite tagging by TOPP reveals a previously unknown behavior of white sharks (, travelling long distances each winter to concentrate in the Pacific for up to six months. During these months, both males and females make frequent, repetitive dives to depths of 300 meters, which researchers theorize may be significant in either feeding or reproduction.

25)    Migration pathway: MAR-ECO researchers suggest the Mid-Atlantic Ridge may serve as an important pathway in colonization of North Atlantic continental slopes. Before their expeditions, scientists thought skates and rays, for example, migrated through the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, rather than taking up residence there.

26)    New species in familiar waters: Systematically exploring two islands on the Great Barrier Reef and a reef off northwestern Australia, CReefs researchers find hundreds of new kinds of animals in waters were long familiar to divers. They also conduct the first scientific inventory of spectacular soft corals, named octocorals for the eight tentacles that fringe each polyp.

27)    Australian expedition: One species in three new to science: The first results from the COMARGE “Voyages of Discovery” expeditions to the deep continental shelf and slope in Australia’s southwest region show 524 species of Decapoda—crabs, shrimps, prawns, lobsters, and the like.  Some 33 percent of all species encountered are suspected to be new species, and 25 percent are new records in the region, eight percent are new records for Australia.

28)    Sponge garden: COMARGE and ChEss researchers examining cold seeps in the Mediterranean Sea using remotely operated vehicles find surprisingly abundant marine life, including a garden of sponges around a brine lake. The sponge itself, likely Rhizaxinella pyrifera, harbours a multitude of small worms.

29)    Behemoth bacteria: A diverse set of giant, filamentous, multi-cellular marine bacteria is discovered by ICOMM ( researchers in the eastern South Pacific. These bacteria may be “living fossils” that developed in the earliest ocean when oxygen was either absent or much diminished, living on the toxic gas hydrogen sulfide. Scientists hypothesize that communities of bacteria may hold potential for bioremediation of organically polluted bottoms and, because of their ability to survive in anoxic conditions, may be an important clue in the search for extraterrestrial life.

30)    Colossal sea stars: CAML expeditions to the Southern Ocean find frequent examples of gigantism common in Antarctic waters.  The researchers collect huge scaly worms, giant crustaceans, starfish and sea spiders as big as dinner plates.

31)    Largest mollusk in class: A giant aplacophoran mollusk, Chaetoderma felderi, is collected in deep waters off Louisiana by GoMex, a Census-affiliated project working in the Gulf of Mexico. Measuring over 407 mm in length and 10 mm in diameter, about the size of a AAA battery, it is more than twice the length and three times the diameter of the next largest known mollusk in the subclass.

32)    Gigantic oysters: With the assistance of a remotely operated vehicle, COMARGE explorers find dense communities of giant oysters 20 cm (eight inches) long at a depth of 700 m on the La Chapelle continental slope. Genetic studies will confirm if this is a new species.

33)    Barcoding zooplankton: An international CMarZ team from 25 cooperating projects is analyzing data from roughly 6,000 historical samples to help create a catalog of described species diversity and distribution. DNA barcodes will identify approximately 7,000 known species of zooplankton in 15 phyla. This growing database will help scientists identify specimens, describe their geographic distributions, and recognize when a species is in fact new. Scientists envision a day soon when quick, automated sample barcoding analysis will be a reality.

34)    Following fishers to find vents: Stymied in their search for active methane seeps in the Chilean margin, COMARGE scientists take a novel approach: follow the fishers. They launch their search in known fishing grounds of the Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), suspecting that these fish congregate near methane seeps. Their hunch proves correct: Most fishing grounds were associated with hard grounds, with some made of carbonates associated with methane seepages.

35)    Coral reef colonization: To learn what new creatures colonize coral reefs, CReefs scientists develop and test Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS), to be colonized by fish and other creatures that inhabit coral reefs. The structures mimic the “nooks and crannies” of a natural reef.  With this information, marine scientists can better understand the health of reefs and policy makers can develop scientifically-based management strategies.

36)    Mapping microbes: To identify marine microbes and survey their distribution around the globe, ICoMM launches 40 separate projects using the same DNA sequencing technology, “454 tag-pyrosequencing.”  The efficient identification by a standardized method allows scientists to inventory areas as diverse as polar biodiversity hotspots, coastal microbial mats, and sediments in tropical coral reefs. They can then create unprecedented global maps of the tiniest life in the ocean.

37)    Arctic robots: Two new underwater robots give ChEss scientists a bird’s eye view of what lives on Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic Ocean. These exploration vehicles carry cameras and sophisticated arrays of instruments used by scientists to discover a new underwater volcanic chain covered by extensive microbial mats. Because the deep Arctic ridges are isolated from other ocean basins, the investigation of Gakkel Ridge provides clues about the evolution of fauna around underwater vents in isolated habitats.

38)    Nearshore research expands worldwide: NaGISA expands nearshore research within the Caribbean, South America, and around the Indian Ocean through regional workshops aimed at standardizing protocols. Scientists use these protocols in monitoring and educational program to assess environmental impacts and to engage local communities in the process.

39)    A highly detailed look at biodiversity in a well-documented bay: A unique collaboration of U.S. and Canadian GoMA ( researchers enhances knowledge of changing marine eco-systems by studying the nearshore zone of Cobscook Bay, Maine, from both historical and present-day perspectives. One of the most diverse coastal ecosystem on the North American east coast north of the tropics, this estuary features many different habitats, a tidal range of over eight  meters, two centuries of historical records dating back to 1842, and more than 800 species identified to date.

40)    Engaging the public: NaGISA scientists studying the nearshore environment of the world ocean are present on six continents. Science education programs and training workshops aim to incorporate research protocols, which makes data gathered in the coastal environment comparable from place to place. The nearshore investigations engage the public in ocean and coastal issues and inspire the next generation of marine scientists.

41)    International study of plankton bloom: In the Southern Ocean, collaborating CeDAMar ( researchers follow a plankton bloom from its onset until it changes to marine snow and finally sinks to the deep-sea floor. The scientists then examine the influence of the snow of fallen plankton on marine life on the floor itself. It is the first such collaboration undertaken since the Galathea expedition in the early 1950’s. In spite of bad weather and complicated logistics, the collaboration produces a trove of data. 

42)    Leading research for International Polar Year: Census projects play a key role in the International Polar Year 2007-2009. In the Arctic, the Census leads the marine biodiversity cluster of 13 projects from eight countries on more than 20 expeditions. They observe how mammals use diverse polar habitats, inventory life in a fjord, and explore seeps, pockmarks, and mud volcanoes on remote ocean floors. In the Southern Ocean, the Census coordinates the science on 10 major expeditions by vessels from nine different countries, the results reported live via the Internet. The Census also initiates a collaborative program focusing on Antarctic marine life in seven South American countries.

43)    Race to protect sea turtles: The Great Turtle Race, an international race developed by TOPP to save a 100-million-year-old species from extinction moved to China in 2008. A Mandarin language version of an interactive webpage tracks the migration of endangered leatherback turtles, bringing the race to approximately 100 million Chinese citizens. Donations go to protection of leatherback turtle nesting areas in Indonesia, and raise awareness of the turtles plight.

44)    Leatherback conservation: For more than 12,095 satellite-tracking days over three years, TOPP scientists track leatherback turtles and compile the largest, multi-year migration record ever. The data reveals that ocean currents shaped the migration corridor and turtle dispersal in the South Pacific.

45)    Hydrothermal vents and seabed mining: ChEss scientists orchestrate a joint scientific and policy meeting for the spring of 2009 to discuss protection of the vent sites from the potential growth of deep sea mining. The meeting’s goal: set priorities for future research and balance the conservation of critical vent sites versus the value of ores.

46)    Focusing fishery management: MAR-ECO research along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge strives to fill information gaps about the distribution and abundance of certain species of grenadier (, distant relatives of codfish in the North Atlantic. Amid the uncertainty, regional managers take precautionary measures to protect grenadier stocks and their habitats.

47)    CSI in the sea: DNA barcoding shark fins: Demand for their fins and other organs impact global shark populations. The frequently inaccurate identification of sharks and rays confuses what fishermen are catching, what fins and organs markets are selling, and how populations are changing. Accordingly, researchers with the Marine Barcode of Life project ( develop DNA barcoding to identify species of sharks and their products, such as dried fins, essential to knowing how many sharks are being caught and to enforce prohibitions.  (See also

48)    Managing underwater mountains: CenSeam expeditions in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica expand knowledge of life on seamounts, providing a foundation for sustainable management of these ecosystems. Census researchers deliver a report to the United Nations General Assembly on the vulnerability of seamount corals to fishing and help develop guidelines for deep-sea fisheries.

49)    Learning from the past: Rise and fall of tuna: Scouring fishery reports, fishing magazines, and other records, HMAP ( researchers document the presence of bluefin tuna ( in northern European waters several decades before the onset of major fisheries in the early 1900s. After fishing increased and techniques became more powerful, the fishery collapsed in the mid-1960s. Documentation of the historical abundance of this especially popular seafood species, and its subsequent collapse, will be used to inform future decisions. 

50)    Assessing human impact: HMAP brings together a worldwide network of experts from multiple disciplines to figure out why populations of mollusc have declined. They report their work in a book, Early Human Impact on Megamolluscs (Oxford: Archaeopress).

51)    High mortality for young salmon: Using acoustic tagging, POST ( researchers track the progress of young Chinook salmon ( as they move from freshwater rivers in the Canadian and US northwest out to the ocean and eventually to the Alaska coast. The observations suggest that in just a few weeks, 40 percent of the tracked salmon perished in the ocean.

52)    Sturgeon playground: POST researchers discover green sturgeon congregate at a “playground” off Vancouver Island before moving on to Alaska for the winter, contrary to scientists’ expectations. The reason for their layover is unknown, but it makes them susceptible to potential over-exploitation.

53)    Conserving life in open ocean: MAR-ECO documentation of the quantity and patterns of diversity on the mid-Atlantic Ridge summit at 3,500 meters helps international management organizations protect habitats and assure sustainable resource use. Continued work by Census scientists and a variety of partners creates a better basis for conservation of marine life in the immense areas of the oceans that lie beyond national jurisdiction.

54)    Tuna and Billfish distribution: FMAP ( researchers investigate the global distribution patterns of two highly migratory predators, tuna and billfish, and relate the information to the temperature tolerances of these species, work that may help anticipate the effects of ocean warming on biodiversity.

55)    OBIS reaches 16 million records: Census experts creating the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (, log 16 million biological records, with 17 million expected by year’s end, received from nodes around the world. Collaboration with the Encyclopedia of Life, among others, expedites information sharing, creating an integrated system containing geographical, biographical, evolutionary, and genetic information, as well as images.

56)    Counting all creatures in the Gulf: Scientists complete a comprehensive inventory of all marine life in the Gulf of Mexico. Published in a 79-chapter book written by 140 authors from 15 countries, the inventory shows 15,625 species from 40 different phyla in the Gulf. A second phase of the project currently underway will make the information available in a searchable online database.

57)    Listing all species, eliminating aliases: The list of known marine species surpasses 120,000, placing the Census halfway toward its goal of cataloging the estimated 230,000 known species by 2010. The Census-affiliated World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) identifies more than 56,000 aliases for ocean species, with one species, the “breadcrumb sponge,” alone having 56 scientific names.

58)    4,000 Marine Fish May Await Discovery: Employing a novel approach to count quantify global fish species, FMAP researchers estimate that almost 16,000 species of marine fish are recorded in publicly accessible databases. They suggest another 4,000 fish species await discovery and description, many of them in the tropics.

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Census of Marine Life. "Astonishing Life In Ocean's Depths: Major Progress Made Towards Historic Census Of Marine Life." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 November 2008. <>.
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