Tally of marine life reveals a bounty of creatures beneath the surface

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

If the Census Bureau has a hard time counting Americans, imagine what scientists are up against trying to tally every living thing in the ocean.

The worldwide Census of Marine Life, which is scheduled to be reported Oct. 4, has involved more than 2,000 scientists from more than 80 nations, and has discovered more than 5,000 new forms of marine life. Researchers think there may be several times that many yet to be found.

Four of its field projects focus on hard-to-see sea life such as microbes, zooplankton and burrowers in the sea bed. What they lack in size they make up for in numbers: Marine census takers calculate there are a "nonillion" of them -- that's 1,000 times 1 billion, times 1 billion, times 1 billion.

To convey just how much living matter that is, the scientists say a nonillion microbe cells have about the same weight as 240 billion African elephants.

Previous reports about the census have focused on larger creatures and their habitat, such as an Antarctic expressway where octopuses ride along in a flow of extra-salty water, the deepest comb jellyfish ever found and the "White Shark Cafe," a Pacific Ocean site where sharks congregate in winter.

For the microbe count, remotely operated deep-sea vehicles discovered that the darkest depths are inhabited by roundworms, sometimes more than 500,000 in slightly more than a square yard of soft clay. Only a few types have been studied. There are also 16,000 or more species of sea worms. And there are hundreds of types of tiny crustaceans.

"Such findings make us look at the deep sea from a new perspective," says researcher Pedro Martinez Arbizu of the German Center for Marine Biodiversity Research. "Far from being a lifeless desert, the deep sea rivals such highly diverse ecosystems as tropical rain forests and coral reefs."

-- Associated Press

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