Issue 14.1: February - March 2011

The Great Search

Story by Kevin Whitton



If you want to know how many people live in a country, it’s not that difficult to find out. You go knocking on doors and you count them. It’s a little more complex, though, if you want to know how many things live in the sea.


But that’s precisely what 2,700 marine scientists from more than eighty nations set out to discover. In 1990 the Census of Marine Life (CoML) took on a monumental and unprecedented task: to inventory the diversity, distribution and abundance of Earth’s marine life. The results were released last October amid staggering numbers: 540 expeditions, twenty-eight million scientific records created, more than six thousand potentially new species found—like the South Pacific’s ghostly yeti crab, with elongated pincers covered in white “fur.” And new discoveries about known species: the “White Shark Café,” an area of the Pacific where great whites congregate; a sea turtle migration “highway” around the Pacific; a bacterial mat the size of Greece on the sea floor off Chile, a shrimp believed extinct for the past fifty million years.


Life in the waters around Hawai‘i, it turns out, is richer than we knew. Craig Smith, professor of oceanography at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, served as co-leader for the Census of Diversity of Abyssal Marine Life, one of fourteen CoML projects. Smith led expeditions to deep-water biodiversity hot spots near Hawai‘i. Researchers found about fifty new species of nematodes, bristle worms and isopods at four thousand to five thousand meters deep.


Closer to the surface, Russell Brainard, co-leader of the Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems based at NOAA in Honolulu, surveyed the French Frigate Shoals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. That expedition documented the diversity of endemic creatures—rare shrimp, crabs, worms and sea cucumbers found only on particular reefs—as well as “cryptic” species, the small, generally unseen organisms that play an essential role in healthy reefs. Cryptic species, says Brainard, might help explain why certain reefs weather climate change and ocean acidification affecting corals worldwide.


The census has only scratched the surface; many more species await discovery. And it has not only served as a starting point for future exploration, says Brainard, “It’s brought together scientists from different countries and institutions working across nationalities and across oceans.”