At least one-third of the species that inhabit the world's oceans may remain completely unknown to science. That's despite the fact that more species have been described in the last decade than in any previous one, according to a report published online on November 15 in the Cell Press publication Current Biology that details the first comprehensive register of marine species of the world—a massive collaborative undertaking by hundreds of experts around the globe.
The researchers estimate that the ocean may be home to as many as one million species in all—likely not more. About 226,000 of those species have so far been described. There are another 65,000 species awaiting description in specimen collections.
"For the first time, we can provide a very detailed overview of species richness, partitioned among all major marine groups. It is the state of the art of what we know—and perhaps do not know—about life in the ocean," says Ward Appeltans of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO.
The findings provide a reference point for conservation efforts and estimates of extinction rates, the researchers say. They expect that the vast majority of unknown species—composed disproportionately of smaller crustaceans, molluscs, worms, and sponges—will be found 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 catalog of marine species.
Appeltans and colleagues including Mark Costello from the University of Auckland have now built such an inventory. The World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) is an open-access, online database (see http://www.marinespecies.org/) created by 270 experts representing 146 institutions and 32 countries. It is now 95% complete and is continually being updated as new species are discovered.
"Building this was not as simple as it should be, because there has not been any formal way to register species," Costello says.
A particular problem is the occurrence of multiple descriptions and names for the same species—so called "synonyms," Costello says. For instance, each whale or dolphin has on average 14 different scientific names.
As those synonyms are discovered through careful examination of records and specimens, the researchers expect perhaps 40,000 "species" to be struck from the list. But such losses will probably be made up as DNA evidence reveals overlooked "cryptic" species.
While fewer species live in the ocean than on land, marine life represents much older evolutionary lineages that are fundamental to our understanding of life on Earth, Appeltans says. And, in some sense, WoRMS is only the start.
"This database provides an example of how other biologists could similarly collaborate to collectively produce an inventory of all life on Earth," Appeltans says.
Appeltans et al.: "The Magnitude of Global Marine Species Diversity"
Cell Press: http://www.cellpress.com
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
Claims that Ai Hin was faking pregnancy to get better treatment have been debunked by leading panda expert
The recent release of Susan Greenfields new book and the film Lucy, both of which are dependent on tired misconceptions or dubious theories about the brain, suggest one worrying conclusion: we are running out of myths about the brain. So here are some new ones, to keep things mysterious
These are the siphonophores, some 180 known species of gelatinous strings that can grow to 100 feet long, making them some of the longest critters on the planet. But instead of growing as a single body like virtually every other animal, siphonophores clone themselves thousands of times over into half a dozen different types of specialized cloned bodies, all strung together to work as a team---a very deadly team at that.
Researchers who study memory have had a thrilling couple of years. Some have erased memories in people with electroshock therapy, for example. Others have figured out, in mice, how to create false memories and even turn bad memories into good ones.
Hunting bats don't just listen out for male frogs' mating calls: they can also use echolocation to detect when the frogs inflate their throat sacs
A crèche of 30 dinosaur infants looked over by an older animal shows that even terrible lizards needed a night away from the kids
Families have identifiable collections of microbes that travel with them. It can take just 24 hours for the microbes to take over a new house
When rabbits were domesticated, around 100 regions of their genome changed to make them less fearful, but the variations are not fixed
Scientists never understood what became of the Paleo-Eskimos who once peopled the north. Now they know—and there's new reason to miss them
NOAA whittles down initial list of 66 species to be covered by Endangered Species Act