Confirmed: Microbial life found half mile below Antarctic ice sheet

August 22, 2014 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

In an icy lake half a mile beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, scientists have discovered a diverse ecosystem of single-celled organisms that have managed to survive without ever seeing the light of the sun.

The discovery, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature is not so much a surprise as a triumph of science and engineering. The research team spent 10 years and more than $10 million to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that life did indeed exist in subglacial lakes near the South Pole.

“It’s the real deal,” said Peter Doran, an Earth scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was not involved in the study. “There was news that they found life early this year, but a bunch of us were waiting for the peer reviewed paper to come out before we jumped for joy.”

John Priscu, the lead scientist on the project, has been studying the Antarctic for 30 years. He published his first paper describing how life might exist in the extreme environment beneath the ice sheet in 1999, and has been looking for definitive proof ever since.

In the winter of 2013-2014, he finally got his chance. After spending millions on a drill that could bore a clean hole free of contaminants through the ice sheet, and moving more than 1 million pounds of gear on giant sleds across the Antarctic ice sheet, he and his team had just four frenzied days to collect the water samples that would prove whether his theories were right or wrong.

Before claiming victory, he wanted to see three lines of evidence that life did exist in the underwater lake. He wanted to visually see the cells under a microscope, he wanted to prove they were alive by feeding them organic matter and measuring their respiration rate, and he wanted to see how much ATT was in their cells.

“I wasn’t surprised to find life under there, but I was surprised how much life there was, and how they made a living,” said Priscu, who teaches at Montana State University. “They are essentially eating the Earth.”

Priscu and his team report the discovery of close to 4,000 species of microbes growing in the cold, dark environment of Subglacial Lake Whillans in western Antarctica. Each quarter teaspoon  of the tea-colored lake water that they brought to the surface had about 130,000 cells in it, they write.

la-sci-sn-microbe-ecosystem-antartic-ice-sheet-0021

The WISSARD camp sitting .5 a mile above the subglacial Lake Whillans in Antarctica. (J. Priscu / MSU)

“I think we were all surprised by that number,” said Brent Christener of Louisiana State University and the lead author of the Nature paper. “We’ve got lakes here on campus that we can take samples of and the numbers are about in that range.”

Life in the lakes of Louisiana has sunlight to provide it with energy, but in the lightless environment of Subglacial Lake Whillans, the microbes rely on minerals from the bedrock and sediments instead. The pressure of the slowly moving ice above the lake grinds the underlying rock into a powder, liberating the minerals in the rock into the water, and making them accessible to the microorganisms living there, explains Christener. The microbes act on those iron, ammonium and sulphide compounds to create energy.

“Ice, water and rock is all that is really needed to fuel the system,” he said.

The findings have major implications for the search for life outside of Earth, especially on the moons of Enceladus and Europa, where scientists believe a thick icy crust covers a vast, internal liquid ocean.

“Europa has an icy shelf and liquid water beneath it, just like we find in the Antarctic system which allows us to draw some conclusions about what we might find there,” said Priscu. “I’d love to be around when we finally penetrate that environment to look for life.”

Lake Whillans, the first lake to be sampled in Antarctica, is a shallow lake, about 6 feet deep, and about 37-square-miles in size. Priscu compares it to the lakes you might see in the Mississippi Basin, with rivers running through it and bringing some of the lake water out into the Indian Ocean.

To sample it, the researchers developed a new type of hot water drill system.

“In principal it is nothing more than a kilometer (about 1/2 a mile) garden hose that you shoot hot water through,” said Christener, “but in reality it is a complex monster.”

The tricky part was using the hot water to drill down into the ice without getting any of that water in the lake. “It’s like taking an 800 page novel and drilling down into 799 pages and then stopping,” he said.

The researchers brought about 13 gallons of the lake water back to the surface to study its chemistry and to see what might be living in it. The water was a brownish color because of the very fine particles that were suspended in it. The particles were so fine, that even after a few days, they did not settle to the bottom of the containers.

Going forward, the researchers want to learn more about how nutrients created by microbial activity in Lake Whillans affects the water in the Indian Ocean. They also think there may be large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane being produced in the lake that could be released into the atmosphere if the Antarctic ice sheet melts.

They would also like to look at other types of subglacial lakes on the continent, some of which are 3,000 feet deep and buried beneath 2 miles of ice.

“Now that we have shown that life can exist in this environment, we’d like to look at other lake types to see the biodiversity and ecosystems that exist under the ice, and get a better idea of their global importance,” said Priscu, who was on his way to plan the next expedition.

The team is going back to Antarctica with their drill in November.

“Hopefully we’ll have more discoveries coming soon,” he said.

For more news on amazing science, follow me @DeborahNetburn and “like” Los Angeles Times Science Health on Facebook.


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Article source: http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-microbe-ecosystem-antartic-ice-sheet-20140819-story.html

Even in Deepwater Canyons, America’s Corals At Risk

August 18, 2014 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

At the beach this summer, gazing out over the waves from the shoreline, it’s hard to imagine the underwater world that lies just below the blue expanse: Partly because it’s so other-worldy, and partly because we just don’t know very much about it.

coral.png

A squat lobster makes its home among various deep-sea corals in Norfolk Canyon, offshore Virginia. (Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2013 - Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS.)

Scientific exploration into the ocean’s depths reveals new discoveries every day, and researchers at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are at the forefront on this work. Take a look at the incredible images from some of their recent dives off the Atlantic Coast:

These amazing gardens of deep-sea coral communities, in Dr. Seuss-like shapes and colors, are a sanctuary for marine life. They serve as a nursery for young fish and crustaceans, and shelter a range of sea life seeking a safe haven from threats that lie in the open waters of the deep sea.

However, the Atlantic’s deep-sea coral communities are at risk. They are highly vulnerable to harm from fishing gear, such as trawlers that pull their fishing nets along the bottom of the ocean. Most deep-sea corals are very slow-growing, so once they’re cut down, that habitat remains destroyed for a very long time. In fact, one pass of trawl gear can destroy corals that have been growing for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

The public now has an opportunity to help protect these ocean oases. Last Monday, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, made up of federal officials and state representatives from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, took an historic step forward to adopt protections for the region’s unique, ecologically important and highly vulnerable deep-sea coral communities. The Council released a full array of options for deep-sea coral protections and will soon ask the public to weigh in on the best ways to preserve these ecosystems.

This is the moment to act on the issue. Because of their depth and rugged topography, the deep-sea coral communities off the Atlantic coast have been largely sheltered from harmful bottom trawling. But as traditional fish species become overfished or markets change, fishing will continue to move into deeper waters and more difficult terrain.

We have a unique window to protect the deep-sea corals and the ecosystems they help support before irreversible damage is done. The Council should protect against the use of damaging fishing gear in both discrete coral protection zones, which would safeguard particularly high-value coral habitat like submarine canyons, and broad coral protection zones, which would provide a level of protection for deeper areas in the region until it is determined that coral communities are not present in these areas.

NRDC is working to ensure that these incredible resources are protected for the future. Public hearings to discuss the Council’s proposed protections will be held this fall — it is important that every voice is heard.

A version of this article was originally published on Live Science Expert Voices.

Article source: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/achase/even_in_deepwater_canyons_amer.html

Who Owns the Ocean Floor?

August 14, 2014 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

Deep-sea mining is coming. Some of the biggest mineral deposits are around the Cook Islands (above). (Brian Scantlebury/Flickr)

That cell phone you carry. It’s made from copper, gold, lead, nickel, zinc and a plethora of less known, hard-to-pronounce metals, not to mention the mined materials needed for the battery that powers the device. Same goes for your computer and other electronics you use on a daily basis.

The desire for these products is unflagging, with newer versions requiring an ever more complicated cocktail of minerals. Yet our resources on land aren’t limitless, so we’ve turned to the sea in search of new supply. “The world’s demand for minerals continues to increase and the terrestrial resources are becoming stretched,” writes the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which controls all mineral-related activities in international waters. “In addition, deep seabed resources often contain a higher concentration of valuable minerals than their terrestrial alternatives.”

The ocean floor teems with metal (at least in spots we’ve targeted so far): copper and nickel, cobalt and silver, even gold. Many consider it the next frontier in mining. Yet much of the ocean remains unstudied, meaning we have no baseline for determining what harm such a disturbance might cause. As we near the first deep-sea mining expeditions — Australian-based Nautilus has the proper permits and could be working below the waves as soon as 2016 — scientists are scrambling to answer these questions before we no longer can.

Heavy Metals
Ocean waters cover more than 70 percent of our Earth’s surface. Yet we’ve explored a mere droplet, according to NOAA. “For all of our reliance on the ocean, 95 percent of this realm remains unexplored, unseen by human eyes,” notes NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

“The extent that we’ve covered is very, very small,” confirms marine biologist Christian Neumann. He’s part of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative or DOSI, a multi-disciplinary group formed in 2013 aimed at making sure the right people are paying attention to the right issues surrounding deep-sea mining.

DOSI and other projects like MIDAS (stands for Managing Impacts of Deep-seA reSource exploitation) have much work to do, because of the staggering amount we still don’t know.

We do know, however, that great potential sits on, and below, the seabed floor. “There are certainly rich deposits to be had in our deep oceans and now it is possible to reach them,” Maria Baker, project manager of the International Network for Scientific Investigations of Deep-Sea Ecosystems (INDEEP) told weather.com by e-mail.

The three types of deep-sea mining are worth describing briefly. The first, seafloor massive sulfides (SMS), are caused by hydrothermal fluids on or below the seafloor along the oceanic plate boundaries. “That’s the type of deposit off Papua New Guinea,” Phil Weaver of MIDAS told weather.com, and that’s where Nautilus plans to mine. The largest known SMS deposit is a 94-million-ton expanse of dry ore containing gold, silver, copper and zinc in the Red Sea.

An example of a manganese nodule, one of the three main sources to find mineral deposits on the ocean floor. (GRID-Arendal)

Cobalt-rich crusts, another type of mining, are deposits full of cobalt and other metals found on the seafloor, typically on seamounts, and are typically irregularly contoured. Despite the abundance of these crusts — one ISA estimate says they cover nearly 2 percent of the entire ocean floor — Weaver predicts this mining is the furthest off.

Which leaves manganese nodules, metal-containing rocks found thousands of feet below the surface that can be mined by sifting just the top foot or so of seabed. The Pacific holds an abundance of these, particularly in a spot called the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone and around the Cook Islands. “The nodules in the Cook Islands lie in national waters. The rest is in international waters and requires permission from the International Seabed Authority,” Weaver said. “The ISA has only, so far, given license for exploration, not for exploitation. It’s still working on the regulations that will be put in place to govern and manage exploitation. Those won’t be in place for two or three years yet.”

Exploitation vs. Protection
So while mining of our ocean deep isn’t happening this month or next, it will happen in the near future. “It’s coming,” Neumann said. “But it’s not tomorrow, and it’s not the day after tomorrow.” That gives us time to ask — and hopefully answer — some important questions. Like: who owns the ocean floor, and how do we both explore deep-sea resources and care for the ecosystems that house them?

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that the deep-sea minerals found within a nation’s marine boundaries — 200 miles beyond their physical borders — belong to that nation. That border can expand up to 350 nautical miles, Weaver said, if the nation applies for and is granted an extension, but beyond that, waters fall under ISA jurisdiction, with any discoveries therein deemed the “common heritage of mankind.”

Like it or not, that phrase, the common heritage of mankind, seems to put the onus on all of us to understand how we’ll affect these deep-sea ecosystems. Many scientists working in this realm think so. “These environments are just so complex,” Baker said. “It is very important that careful monitoring of any mining activity that does go ahead is extremely well thought through and standardized.”

“[The deep ocean] is often forgotten or understood as something that isn’t valuable from an ecological standpoint,” added Neumann. “But it is.”

MIDAS is in the midst of a three-year, $16 million project to determine whether these ecosystems will mind our presence. Most recently, a team explored a region of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge near the Azores to study plumes from mining and species that live near hydrothermal vents, Nature reported. “We don’t know how far the plumes will travel and how much toxic material it will contain,” Weaver said. “It will suffocate bottom-living organisms in the vicinity of the mining. We don’t know how far it’ll spread.”

Scientists also don’t know just how toxic the material will be, whether it matters where excess water gets dumped, how species in extremely stable environments might handle disturbances. The list goes on. The idea isn’t to halt deep-sea mining, but rather to establish a baseline for what these ecosystems currently look like and a set of best practices, Baker said. “The depth of studies required to fully understand these systems and to gauge the potential impact on the environment would require significant funding and time for survey and analysis.”

There’s still time, but we need to act now, she added. “We are certainly running out of time.” As the mining industry moves forward, the environmental stewards can’t afford to stand still.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article listed Nautilus as Toronto-based.


Article source: http://www.weather.com/news/science/who-owns-ocean-floor-20140819

SATANIC ‘HELL DIAMOND’ tells of sunless subterranean sea

March 13, 2014 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

For years scientists have theorised about the amount of water locked in the Earth’s infernally hot depths, frustrated at not being able to get at a sample. Now geologists claim to be closer to an answer – thanks to a single ugly diamond found in Brazil.

The $20 diamond that yielded the ringwoodite sample

The brownish gem – bought for about $20 but of inestimable scientific value – has given researchers the first ever terrestrial sample of a rare mineral known as ringwoodite - the highest pressure high-pressure polymorph of olivine currently known to exist.

Analysis of the tiny sample of ringwoodite within the glistening gem shows that it contains a significant amount of water – 1.5 per cent of its weight – hinting at huge volumes of water beneath the surface of the Earth.


“This sample really provides extremely strong confirmation that there are local wet spots deep in the Earth,” said Graham Pearson of the University of Alberta. “That particular zone in the Earth, the transition zone, might have as much water as all the world’s oceans put together.”

Olivine – a green magnesium iron silicate – has been predicted to exist in its high-pressure gemstone form, peridot in the transition zone. Ringwoodite, the highest pressure peridot, has previously been found in meteorites, but has never been discovered on Earth before because scientists can’t reach the planet’s core.

The Brazilian “diamond” was found on the surface in 2008 after being brought to the top by a volcanic rock known as kimberlite. When Pearson and his team bought the sample, they were actually looking for another mineral and stumbled on the ringwoodite by accident.

“It’s so small, this inclusion, it’s extremely difficult to find, never mind work on,” he said, “so it was a bit of a piece of luck, this discovery, as are many scientific discoveries.”

The tiny sample of mineral has confirmed around 50 years of theoretical work by geophysicists and seismologists trying to define the makeup of the interior of the Earth and in a way, proves both the dry and wet theories.

It shows that the transition zone is an oasis of water in what is otherwise a very dry deep core, containing a vast mass of water recycled from the surface. This water may be responsible for many of the tectonic and volcanic features that make the Earth such a unique planet.

“One of the reasons the Earth is such a dynamic planet is because of the presence of some water in its interior,” Pearson said. “Water changes everything about the way a planet works.”

The full study, “Hydrous mantle transition zone indicated by ringwoodite included within diamond”, was published in Nature. ®

Gemnote

The University of Minnesota has a reasonably informative page about olivine here.

Article source: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/03/13/mineral_water_earth_core/

Famed Roman shipwreck reveals more secrets

January 3, 2013 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

Ancient artifacts resembling the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient bronze clockwork astronomical calculator, may rest amid the larger-than-expected Roman shipwreck that yielded the device in 1901.

Marine archaeologists report they have uncovered new secrets of an ancient Roman shipwreck famed for yielding an amazingly sophisticated astronomical calculator. An international survey team says the ship is twice as long as originally thought and contains many more calcified objects amid the ship’s lost cargo that hint at new discoveries.

At the Archaeological Institute of America meeting Friday in Seattle, marine archaeologist Brendan Foley of the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institution, will report on the first survey of Greece’s famed Antikythera island shipwreck since 1976. The ancient Roman shipwreck was lost off the Greek coast around 67 BC,filled with statues and the famed astronomical clock.

“The ship was huge for ancient times,” Foley says. “Divers a century ago just couldn’t conduct this kind of survey but we were surprised when we realized how big it was.”

Completed in October by a small team of divers, the survey traversed the island and the wreck site, perched on a steep undersea slope some 150 to 230 feet deep in the Mediterranean Sea.

The October survey shows the ship was more than 160 feet long, twice as long as expected. Salvaged by the Greek navy and skin divers in 1901, its stern perched too deep for its original skin-diver discoverers to find.

The wreck is best known for yielding a bronze astronomical calculator, the “Antikythera Mechanism” widely seen as the most complex device known from antiquity, along with dozens of marble and bronze statues. The mechanism apparently used 37 gear wheels, a technology reinvented a millennium later, to create a lunar calendar and predict the motion of the planets, which was important knowledge for casting horoscopes and planning festivals in the superstitious ancient world.

A lead anchor recovered in a stowed position in the new survey shows that the ship likely sank unexpectedly when “a storm blew it against an underwater cliff,” says marine archaeologist Theotokis Theodoulou of Greece’s Ephorate (Department) of Underwater Antiquities. “It seems to have settled facing backwards with its stern (rear) at the deepest point,” he says.

Antikythera Mechanism

The bronze Antikythera Mechanism used 37 gear wheels, a technology reinvented a millennium later, to create a lunar calendar and predict the motion of the planets.(Photo: Antikythera Mechanism Research Project)

Scholars have long debated whether the ship held the plunder of a Roman general returning loot from Greece in the era when the Roman Republic was seizing the reins of the Mediterranean world, or merely luxury goods meant for the newly built villas of the Roman elite. The last survey of the shipwreck was led by undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, whose documentary Diving for Roman Plunder chronicled that 1976 effort, which appears to have excavated the ship’s kitchen.

The October survey team watched the 1970s documentary to help orient themselves to the wreck site. “They didn’t have the diving technology that we now have to do a very efficient survey,” Theodoulou says.

Along with vase-like amphora vessels, pottery shards and roof tiles, Foley says, the wreck also appears to have “dozens” of calcified objects resembling compacted boulders made out of hardened sand resting atop the amphorae on the sea bottom. Those boulders resemble the Antikythera mechanism before its recovery and restoration. In 2006, an X-ray tomography team reported that the mechanism contained at least 30 hand-cut bronze gears re-creating astronomical cycles useful in horoscopes and timing of the Olympic Games in the ancient world, the most elaborate mechanical device known from antiquity until the Middle Ages. “The (objects) may just be collections of bronze nails, but we won’t know until someone takes a look at them,” Foley says.

The survey effort, headed by Aggeliki Simossi of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities,will continue for the next two years. The international survey team will look in two different locales for ancient shipwrecks in that time, while Greek antiquities officials ponder further exploration. An amphora recovered from the wreck will also have its inner walls tested for DNA traces of the regular cargo, such as wine, once carried by the vessel.

Recovery of whatever cargo remains with the wreck, now covered in sand, presents a technically difficult, but not impossible, challenge for marine archaeologists.

“Obviously there are a lot of artifacts still down there, but we will need to be very careful about our next steps. This ship was not a normal one,” Theodoulou says.

Article source: http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/01/03/antikythera-shipwreck-survey/1804353/

New carnivorous harp sponge discovered in deep sea

November 20, 2012 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

A blog by Scientific American.

You may remember the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) from such discoveries as the Yeti crab, the squid with elbows and my personal favourite, the pigbutt worm, and now they’re back with footage of a new species of carnivorous sponge.

Seventeen years ago, Jean Vacelet and Nicole Boury-Esnault from the Centre of Oceanology at France’s Aix-Marseille University provided the first real evidence that a sponge could be more than, well, a sponge. They had discovered a new species of deep-sea sponge living in the unusual setting of a shallow Mediterranean sea cave, the inside of which mimicked the conditions of its usual habitat more than a kilometre below the surface. This allowed the researchers an unprecedented view of the sponge’s eating habits, and they watched as it snared its prey of small fish and crustaceans instead of absorbing bacteria and organic particles through their bodies, like most other sponge species do – including ones living in the very same cave.

Vacelet and Boury-Esnault’s sponges were of the Asbestopluma genus and belonged to the Cladorhizidae family of carnivorous demosponges – the class that contains over 90% of the world’s sponges. Since reporting their discovery in a 1995 issue of Nature, 24 new species of cladorhizid sponges, including the incredible ping-pong tree sponge (see below), have also been discovered. Yet due to the difficulty of studying their behaviour at such incredible depths, researchers have had little opportunity to describe essential aspects of their lives, particularly how they reproduce.

Chondrocladia, or ping-pong, sponge.  MBARI

Chondrocladia, or ping-pong, sponge. MBARI

Which is where MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) Tiburon and Doc Ricketts, come in. Using these deep-diving vessels, a team of researcher s led by Senior Research Technician Lonny Lundsten discovered a species of harp sponge called Chondrocladia lyra off the coast of California, at depths of 3316–3399m.

As Mr_Skeleton pointed out on Reddit this week, this sponge doesn’t look like it could clean anything. But it can catch prey, envelope it in membrane and digest it whole, so it certainly has other priorities. Based on footage of several individuals and two large, fragmentary specimens brought up by the ROVs, Lundsten’s team described how the vertical branches and horizontal stolons that make up the sponge’s basic harp-like structure, called a vane, are covered in barbed hooks and spines. They found that a number of crustacean prey were passively ensnared on these branches thanks to the Velcro-like hooks and then aggressively enclosed in a cavity to be dismembered into small, digestible particles, which provided direct evidence of the species’ carnivorous appetites.

The vertical branches of the harp sponge are tipped by swollen terminal balls containing packets of sperm.

The vertical branches of the harp sponge are tipped by swollen terminal balls containing packets of sperm.  MBARI

The vertical branches of the harp sponge are tipped by swollen terminal balls containing packets of sperm. MBARI

C. lyra can grow up to 37cm long – impressive for a sponge – and are anchored to the sea-floor by a structure called a rhizoid, which looks like a root system. They can have 1-6 vanes, each supporting a number of equidistant vertical branches, and each of these end in swollen terminal balls. According to the researchers, these terminal balls produce condensed packets of sperm called spermatophores, which are released into the surrounding water in the hopes of fertilising other harp sponges in the area. Each C lyra sponge also has an egg development area around the mid-point of the branches, and when the spermatophores make contact, these areas swell up as the eggs are fertilised and begin to mature.

The team suggests that the structure of the harp sponge is designed to ensure that they catch the most prey possible, and also maximise their chances of catching spermatophores from other harp sponges.

“Video footage taken as the ROVs approached specimens of C. lyra provided information about the biological diversity of the areas in which the sponges live,” the researchers added in their report in the current issue of Invertebrate Biology. “Among the coexisting invertebrates were unidentified sea anemones; the soft coral Anthomastus robustus, members of several species of sea pens; and the sea cucumber Paelopadites confundens, as well as another sea cucumber in the family Elipidiidae.”

Article source: http://www.nature.com/news/new-carnivorous-harp-sponge-discovered-in-deep-sea-1.11789

Creatures of deep new to scientists

November 20, 2012 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

Weird underwater discoveries such as an egg-eating Australian sea serpent and a strikingly coloured worm named after Star Wars‘ Yoda could carry on for decades to come, with new research estimating that up to one third of species remain undiscovered.

A study co-led by a University of Auckland expert and published today in international journal Current Biology calculated there were fewer than one million marine species on the planet, lower than some previous estimates. The number undiscovered likely amounts to a third of all species.

Hot spots for new finds included deep sea ecosystems and those in tropical areas, said Associate Professor Mark Costello from the University of Auckland, who co-led the research with Ward Appeltans of Flanders Marine Institute and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of Unesco.

“If we look at the number of undescribed species and samples from around the world, especially deep sea and tropical areas, the average over 100 studies was that about 30 per cent of those new species were new to science,” he told the Herald.

Easier identification, better technology and more scientists would boost the rate of discovery.

“It’s likely it will get harder and harder to find the rarer things, but it also gets more exciting.”

Bizarre species discovered within the past year included Yoda purpurata, which had features resembling the Jedi master’s large sagging ears, a crimson shrimp found at a depth of 2600m beneath the Norwegian Sea, and an odd-looking bristle worm discovered 1600m below the northeast Pacific.

“Knowing how many species there are in our oceans, and describing them, is vital for science and conservation for several reasons,” Professor Costello said.

“Species are the most practical measure for distinguishing habitats and tracking progress in exploring the earth’s biodiversity.

“They are as fundamental to biology as elements are to chemistry and particles to physics.

“So failure to consider all species in an ecosystem is analogous to an accountant ignoring items of inventory in a company’s stock.”

Better understanding of what species exist enabled more accurate estimates of extinction rates through habitat loss, while having a “master list” of species’ names was essential for quality assurance.

Research efforts have been boosted by the World Register of Marine Species - an open-access, online database that has received contributions from almost 300 scientists from 32 countries.

The study supports previous research by Professor Costello and colleagues, which used statistical modelling and an earlier version of the register to reach a similar estimate of the number of species on earth and in the oceans. It is also the culmination of 14 years’ work for Professor Costello, who began a European register of marine species in 1997 that expanded until the world register was initiated in 2006.

OCEANS STILL TO GIVE UP THEIR INHABITANTS

Around 226,000 species have been described by science and as many as 72,000 more are in collections awaiting description - yet hundreds of thousands more may still be waiting for discovery in our oceans.

The rate of discovery is, however, increasing, with an unprecedented 20,000 new marine species described in the past decade alone, suggesting that most marine species will be discovered this century.

Earlier estimates of ocean diversity had relied on expert polls based on extrapolations from past rates of species descriptions and other measures.

Those estimates varied widely, suffering because there was no global catalogue of marine species, and a new study gauging a more accurate figure canvassed 120 of the world’s top experts on the taxonomy, or classification, of marine species.

Mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and larger plants were some of the best-described groups of marine species to date.

Many of the species yet to be discovered will come from among the smaller crustaceans, molluscs, algae, worms, and sponges.

By Jamie Morton Jamienzherald Email Jamie

Article source: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10847735