An Undersea Census

Scientists worldwide are conducting a survey of all marine life, large and small

April 21, 2010

While the U.S. government conducts a census of its citizens, scientists around the world have been carrying out a count of their own. But this census is a bit fishy. In fact, it's taking place in the deep blue sea!

More than 2,000 scientists from 80 nations are involved with the Census of Marine Life. Researchers kicked off the count in 2000. They hope to tally every living thing in the ocean--even creatures so small they are invisible to the naked eye. The findings of the 10-year survey will be reported on October 4, in London, England.

Little Things Count, Too

Since the census began 10 years ago, more than 5,000 new forms of marine life have been discovered. Census updates in the past have focused on bigger species, such as the city of brittle stars found off the coast of New Zealand. Now, researchers are zeroing in on the tinier creatures, such as microbes, zooplankton and seaworms.

How can you count something you can't even see? By collecting plenty of samples. Scientists have been studying samples of water from more than 1,000 different sites. Remote-controlled vehicles are also used to explore the ocean floor.

From the census, researchers have discovered that roundworms, a microscopic animal, rule the deepest and darkest parts of the sea bottom. They have also identified 7,000 species of zooplankton, a tiny animal that some call sea bugs. That number is expected to double in the final census report. "Scientists are discovering and describing an astonishing new world of marine microbial diversity and abundance," said Mitch Sogin, of the Marine Biological Laboratory, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Doing the Math

These creatures may be little, but there are a lot of them. An estimated nonillion of these microscopic creatures live in the oceans. What's a nonillion? In numbers, a nonillion is equal to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. (That's 30 zeroes!) That number is so big that a nonillion microscopic microbe cells weigh as much as 240 billion African elephants.

"Such findings make us look at the deep sea from a new perspective," says 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 rainforests and coral reefs."


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