Life in the oceans

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Life in the oceans

With fanfare that even snared some attention outside scientific circles, the 10-year Census of Marine Life came to a conclusion Oct. 1. The headlines and self-congratulation were deserved: our “ocean planet” is predominantly covered with salt water, and the Census had strength in numbers: 2,700 scientists from more than 80 nations spent $650 million exploring life in salt water. Working in 25 groups, the scientists sifted and collated old data and performed new studies on 540 field expeditions.

Parade of New Species

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The Census also crafted the ground-breaking Ocean Biogeographic Information System. This public database contains 30 million records on more than 100,000 marine species, derived from new studies and about 800 existing databases that were harmonized for easy digital access (or so we’re told; we confess we’ve not looked up our favorite lobster in the database).

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Yellow crab with long hairy claws and extremely hairy legs

South of Easter Island in the Pacific, Census explorers discovered the yeti crab, which became the first member of a new biological family, Kiwida (Kiwa was the mythological Polynesian goddess of shellfish). The yeti crab supposedly resembles the abominable snowman, the “yeti.”

The effort was monumental, but necessary, considering that roughly 71 percent of our planet is covered by ocean. For reasons of remoteness, expense, logistics and physics, ocean science is difficult and expensive, and as a result, we know a lot less about life in the oceans than on land.

And even on land, scientists cannot agree on the total number of multicellular species, let alone count the bacteria and other one-celled critters.

The effort to explore salty sections of the planet that began in 2000 has already boosted the number of known marine species from 230,000 to 250,000. About 5,000 more candidate species await analysis in jars and freezers around the world.

What is the big picture?

Educated guesstimates suggest that the oceans may hold 1 million multicellular species – four times the number that’s been cataloged. In total, since 2000, an average of 1650 new marine species have been named each year — proof that the age of biological discovery continues. That number includes about 150 species of fish.

Central and northern South America and Caribbean Islands, colored squares over Caribbean Sea, 4 circles

Courtesy Patricia Miloslavich
Half of fish biodiversity in the Caribbean is located near venerable marine science stations (circled). “Very few samples come from the huge, deep-sea basin in the middle,” says Census scientist Patricia Miloslavich. “If you go to places where you have never been, you will find new species.”

Our view of marine biodiversity suffers from sampling bias – we find more species near scientific stations, and that is one error Census projects are trying to correct, says Patricia Miloslavich of Simon Bolivar University in Venezuela. Miloslavich, a co-senior scientist for the census and head of its Caribbean project, says biodiversity data for the Caribbean, “did not show the location of biodiversity so much as the location of marine scientific institutions. There are little hot spots around … the places where most research been carried out in the last 50 to 80 years.”

Because South America extends so far north and south, and fronts two major oceans, it posed a good test for the notion that biodiversity would peak in the tropics and taper off toward the poles. Miloslavich says Census data from South America refuted that conventional wisdom.

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Chile, on left, and Argentina, on right, between latitudes 40 and 50 degrees south. Fjords in southern Chile

Near South America, at 40° to 50° south latitude, biodiversity is much higher in the Pacific than the Atlantic, probably due to the many biological niches in Chile’s convoluted coastline. Scientists traditionally expect to find more biodiversity in the tropics.

In the tropics, the expected high biodiversity did appear in the Pacific and the Atlantic, Miloslavich says. But the Pacific also showed a biodiversity hotspot between 40° to 50° south latitude. “The Chilean fjords are a very irregular coast, with a lot of biodiversity,” Miloslavich says, “but at the same latitude on the Atlantic side, off Argentina, biodiversity was low.”

No way can we summarize this huge effort to catalog and measure ocean life. Instead, we’ll encourage you to browse for yourself while we focus on new data about:

The Arctic Ocean

Fish migration


Canada’s coldest realm

The Census of Marine Life studied Canada’s Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic coasts, which by themselves account for 16 percent of the globe’s coasts, says Philippe Archambault, first author of the report on Canada’s “three oceans”.

The Census attempted to negate sampling bias, which had suggested that the Atlantic was more diverse than the enormous Arctic coast, which stretches more than 160,000 kilometers.

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Yellow spider-like creature with eight very long logs; it's slightly longer than the human hand next to it

Colossendeis colossea, Mylène Bourque, Benthic Ecology Laboratory, Institut des sciences de la mer, Rimouski, Quebec.
This large sea spider, from the Canadian Arctic, feeds on corals and other organisms by sucking their contents through his enormous mouth, or proboscis, located at lower right. Although the sea spider has a small body, its vital organs, including gonads, are housed in its elegant legs.

On the Arctic coast, biodiversity counts covering just 53 square meters (“the size of three Canadian kitchens!” Archambault says) revealed 1,200 species (mainly animals longer than 1 millimeter). In comparison, studies of 170 square meters of the shorter Atlantic coast showed 1,300 species. We offered the conventional wisdom, that the Arctic is biologically boring. “This was not the case when we put out a similar sampling effort,” Archambault says.

The planetary warming that is melting the Arctic ice is already affecting sea life, Archambault adds. In areas that were normally covered with ice for most of the year, the summer melt allows a brief pulse of sunlight that energizes plants, starting a simple food chain in which animals graze the plants and drop to the sea floor, to be eaten by predators. But when the water remains ice-free for more time, Archambault says, small crustaceans called copepods in the water eat the grazers before they can reach the sea floor. “So you now have copepod feces going to the sea floor, and you don’t have the same animals living down below.”

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Three green-blue starfish with 16 legs each cling to a mossy ocean surface

Photo: Casey Debenham, University of Alaska Fairbanks
These subarctic sunflowers live in the shallow waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska; part of an Arctic that now seems unexpectedly rich in biodiversity.

The studies organized by the Census are documenting today’s conditions in the Arctic, so we can understand what happens as the climate changes. “The Arctic is almost the last pristine area on the planet,” Archambault says. “When the ice melts, there will be more shipping, more potential for oil spills, and yet we don’t have baseline information” to help track the anticipated changes. (This video shows biological exploration in the Arctic.)

The Canadian studies highlighted how biology is hobbled by a shortage of taxonomists — experts who can distinguish one species from another. “We are losing taxonomic expertise in Canada, and everywhere,” says Archambault. “We have much more technology for counting species, but this can only help us know how many species are there, it won’t tell us what they are doing.” He notes that the Census of Marine Life had to send 25 samples of polychaete worms, a common sea-bed resident, to Mexico for analysis, and one turned out to be an unknown species. “We cannot do this identification in Canada anymore,” says Archambault. “Taxonomy is not sexy enough!”

A lot of biology is at stake in the frozen realm, Archambault says, yet we don’t even know what’s living there. “Each time we send in equipment, in the Arctic, in the Pacific or the Atlantic, there is a big chance of finding something new.”

Tracking fish

Migrations always fascinate biologists, whether it’s the monarch butterfly winging thousands of miles between central Mexico and the American Midwest, or the Arctic tern, flying a round-trip of about 9,000 miles from the South Atlantic to Norway.

Whales migrate, turtles migrate, and so do fish like the salmon. Because tracking migrations, especially for smaller critters, is difficult, one Census project has laid strings of underwater microphones across rivers, straits and the continental shelf along British Columbia.

The strings can be used to track fish or other animals that carry tiny noisemakers.

On the continental shelf, receivers spaced 800 meters apart can detect 90 percent of the fish swimming past, says Jim Bolger, executive director of POST, the Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking project. Because the network can identify individual animals, remote-control migration tracking becomes possible once the noisemakers are in place.

Scientists who use the network “are not only looking at where they go and how fast they traveling, but are identifying bottlenecks for survival, where fish fail to show up,” says Bolger, who also directs the Vancouver Aquarium. Such information can abet management measures designed to make life easier for many types of marine creatures.

Eleven buoys with round orange tops line side of ship deck, rough sea waters in background

2004 photo, POST
Acoustic units prepare for a swim in the Strait of Georgia, British Columbia, to prove that these arrays of microphones can track animals bearing distinctive noisemakers.

Salmon in the Northwest have been a focus of concern for many years — as their spawning rivers are dammed, fewer are returning to the ocean to mature. Fish tagging can be used to track salmon, if you can find the fish later on, but POST works much quicker, Bolger says. “We don’t have to wait four or five years to see how they survive; we can measure survival almost in real time.”

Bolger says salmon swim complex routes. A POST study of four salmon species in British Columbia found major variations in swimming speed and route.

A second study of young salmon in British Columbia linked survival to the timing of migration: young salmon that hit the ocean when plankton were blooming had 150 percent to 300 percent better survival.

This type of data could help conservation groups and hatcheries trying to restore salmon, but . “There is no one-size-fits-all strategy,” Bolger says. “Even within the same species, on the same river, we have tremendous complexity in how they swim and where they go. Some go north, others to the south. This could be a survival strategy; they don’t send all their progeny in one direction.”

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Gloved hands holding a juvenile salmon in one and a medal measuring tool in the other

Photo: POST
The new noisemakers are so small they can even be placed inside young salmon, before they start their migration down rivers and into the ocean.

Information from the acoustic array can also be melded with data on genetics and physiology, Bolger says. “We can see whether fish with high levels of stress hormone behave differently than those with low levels. Scientists can examine the blood chemistry and genetics when the tag is implanted,” and then correlate the data with their subsequent movement.

The magic of microbes

Perhaps the biggest single question about ocean life concerns microbes — bacteria, their primitive relatives called Archaea, and other single-celled organisms such as protists and ameba. Species are difficult to define in bacteria and Archaea, which is why scientists use “taxa” instead, but the numbers are daunting: the oceans could contain tens of millions of taxa, and the exploration has just begun.

“Small” does not mean insignificant: the approximately 1029 microbes in the sea weigh one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) tons, and comprise an estimated 90 percent of life in the ocean, by weight. Not only are microbes critical to the food chain, but they also engineer many of the basic chemical reactions that move fundamental elements like carbon and nitrogen through the oceans.

Global Seafloor Biomass

Highest biomass in coastal arctic, especially Alaska and Russia; most biomass generally polar, least in tropics

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By measuring carbon, scientists estimated biomass, including creatures from bacteria to plants and the biggest animals, at the seafloor. Generally, the tropics seafloor is low in biomass compared to temperate and polar regions.

Scientists long ago gave up trying to distinguish microbes by growing them in culture, and now count them with genetic techniques nick-named “molecular bar-coding.” These methods evaluate similarities and difference in a specific section of the genes, then use the data to build an evolutionary tree. Bar-coding applies to all life, and is widely used to assess evolutionary relationships in higher organisms as well as bacteria.

Ten years ago, scientists using molecular bar-coding concluded that a single liter of ocean water might contain 3,000 types of microbe, says Mitch Sogin, of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and a leader of the International Census of Marine Microbes, “But what blew the doors off that estimate was a very deep molecular sampling effort in 2005 … which revealed that the number is at least an order of magnitude higher.”

Today, it’s estimated that a liter of seawater may have 30,000 to 40,000 types of microbes, Sogin says, “so if we take all 1,200 samples [from the microbial wing of the ocean census], we very conservatively estimate that they contain one-half million kinds of microbes.”

There are reasons to suspect that the actual number may be much higher, Sogin says, but even using this definition, “Every time we look at a new sample, we identify new taxa, and yet we have only sampled 1,200 liters, which is 1 in 10 18 parts of the total ocean.”

when bacteria make rock

Bean-shaped mass with several strings coming from its middle, strings meet and separate, making hourglass shape

Loihi Seamount, courtesy Katrina Edwards
An iron-processing bacteria (bean-shaped object) forming iron-oxide needles.

Unfortunately, molecular bar-coding does not show what newfound microbes are eating, or how they affect their surroundings. At Loihi Seamount, a submarine volcano near Hawaii, marine census scientists have explored microbial iron-mongers. Katrina Edwards, a professor of marine and environmental biology at the University of Southern California, says, “At Loihi, we could dig our heels in to study a particular class of microbes that we think are pretty ubiquitous at the seafloor.”

These bacteria “play a very large role in iron oxidation and the deposition of enormous quantities of iron oxide,” which eventually becomes rock, Edwards says. “If we can understand how these rocks are formed in the modern world, and can understand the physiology, genome and ecology of the bacteria, we can interpret” old rocks found in other locations.

Microbes: Why so many?

Linda Amaral-Zettler, a microbial ecologist and program manager for the International Census of Marine Microbes, has a question: “Why are there so many different kinds of microbes living in this environment, that at first blush, seems uniform?”

One answer comes from the billions of years of every that have produced so many life patterns and genetics. But another answer, she says, may be “that there are a lot more niches or places to live than we have appreciated. Somehow these organisms are sensing these micro-habitats and are able to survive despite the competition.”

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Two sharks swim over yellow-ish coral reef, several small fish swim in background

Photo: Enric Sala
Coral reefs serve as the perfect haven for co-habitation between microbes and sharks!

Microbes can be extremely specialized, and scientists have found that the most common microbes living on one species of sponge are not among the most common on another sponge, says Amaral-Zettler, who works at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. “Animals, plants and other multicellular organisms are likely to be havens for microbes, and we have barely sampled them. Essentially any surface that is out in the ocean can be colonized.”

Even trash?

Apparently. “All the signs say that even garbage is something the microbes are taking advantage of; likely they are degrading it and using it for an energy source,” says Amaral-Zettler, who is starting to examine microbes on plastic in the sea in collaboration with the Sea Education Association.

Here’s another question: Why are most of the microbial taxa discovered by the Census so rare? Having a few dominant species and plenty of rare ones is often characteristic “of an environment that is impacted in some way” Amaral-Zettler says, “but it seems to be a repeating pattern in the sea; we see it everywhere we look. We are struggling to understand the ecological consequences of having so many rare microbial species.”

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Light brown seahorse with long snout and leaf-like fins on back, front and tail

Plant or animal? The leafy seadragon confuses predators by mimicking drifting seaweed.

This business of the “rare biosphere” fascinates Sogin, a specialist in microbial evolution, who suggests that the many rare species:

Could have evolved as a giant warehouse of genetic variability

May be keystone species — uncommon organisms that provide some essential function to the community, much as a wolf can serve as top predator

May actually be common in places that have not yet been sampled

Should we worry?

If there is an uncountable diversity of microbes in the sea, should we ignore the conventional cavil about biodiversity — that too many species will go extinct? Why worry if the sea has more microbes than we can count?

Not so fast, says Sogin, who warns that we are changing the sea in ways that could harm microbes and boomerang back to harm us.

It’s not just that all multicellular organisms evolved from single-celled creatures, Sogin says. Life can survive happily without people, but life relies on microbes. “During 80 percent of the history of life, microbes transformed the planet into something that was habitable by multicellular organisms. They created an environment we can live in. This process continues, because so many microbes in the ocean carry out processes that are essential to our survival.”

People, after all, are dumping garbage, sewage and fertilizer into the ocean, warming it with greenhouse gases, and as the ocean absorbs our carbon dioxide, it becomes more acidic.

Since we don’t understand how the ocean works, we cannot predict the consequences of a major change in the environment.

However, Sogin says, “We know from lab work in microbiology that tremendous shifts can occur in population structures and lead to an imbalance and then a further change in environmental conditions. What will happen with continued ocean acidification or a dramatic shift in seawater temperature? We are going to have a disruption of the microbial community. Is that good or bad? We don’t know.”


Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive