Unknown waterworld

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  • Published 3.08.10

New Delhi, Aug. 2: The world’s largest survey of oceanic life has catalogued more than 1,200 species new to science, including a tiny mite, a shrimp-like creature and a deep-sea sponge discovered by Indian scientists.

The Census of Marine Life, a global research programme, has developed an inventory expected to list some 230,000 species but the mammoth exercise has also hinted at a vastly larger figure of unknown life beneath the sea.

A banana-sized fish with dagger teeth, a squid endowed with jewel-like organs and a worm that feeds on whale bones are among the myriad marine microbes, plants and animals catalogued after the 10-year global effort.

Scientists from the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, who joined the census have discovered three species previously unknown to science: a mite (Fortuynia arabica) and a shrimp-like animal (Cletocamptus goenchim) from the Arabian Sea and a deep-sea sponge (Hyalascos andamanensis) from southern Bay of Bengal. Two other new species discovered by the NIO team are crustaceans and are yet to be assigned names.

The global effort that stretched from the Antarctic’s waters across the tropical and temperature zones to the Arctic has shown that crustaceans, molluscs and fish account for half the known species in all these regions.

The decade-long census spanning 2000-2010 involved 2,700 scientists from more than 80 countries. Some researchers dived into the sea armed with cameras while others used unmanned submersibles to probe the ocean depths or scanned marine literature from as far back as the 17th century.

Scientists from several regions have described their findings in papers published today in the journal PLOS-One. The full inventory is expected to be unveiled in October.

Some of the best-known marine species such as whales, turtles, seals and walruses make up just two per cent of oceanic bio-diversity, the census has found.

“This inventory was urgently needed for two reasons,” said Mark Costello, a marine biologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and lead author of a summary paper.

“Dwindling expertise in taxonomy impairs (our) ability to describe new species, and marine species have suffered major declines... and may be headed for extinction.”

Costello said the colossal effort had scientific, political and social significance. “Never before have so many marine biologists collaborated from around the world,” he told The Telegraph.

Scientists believe the census has helped build baseline data that will help them track changes in marine bio-diversity that may occur in the future, from natural or human-driven causes.

“Bio-diversity is linked to so many things that we do —from what we eat to what medicines we get,” said P. Adikesavan Loka Bharathi, a biological oceanographer at the NIO and a census team member.

Australian biologists have observed dragonfish, a banana-sized creature with teeth along its jaws and on its tongue that help it hold on to prey in the dark depths of the ocean. Japanese scientists have studied so-called zombie worms that eat whale bones. In the Caribbean, researchers have observed a venomous worm that stretches out like a pearl necklace.

Scientists believe that the number of yet-to-be described marine species may be three or four times higher than that of known marine species. There may be one million to 1.4 million species in the oceans, Costello and his colleagues estimate.

“Most ocean organisms remain nameless and their numbers unknown,” said Nancy Knowlton, a senior biologist at the Smithsonian Institution in the US and leader of a group that explored coral reefs.

“The ocean is simply so vast that after 10 years of hard work, we still have snapshots, though sometimes detailed, of what the sea contains,” Knowlton said in a statement.

A full inventory of the Indian Ocean — the largest among all the census regions — is yet to be published.

“All evidence indicates that the Indian-Western Pacific region has more species than any other region,” Costello said. “However, the diversity of this region and east Africa has not been comprehensively compiled.”

A member of the NIO team said India’s efforts were handicapped by the absence of special technologies, such as unmanned submersibles that could have been used to explore deep regions of the Indian Ocean.