God told Adam in the Garden of Eden to name all the fowl of the air and beasts
of the field – but not the fishes, which he couldn’t see. That was left to the
just-completed, decade-long first Census of Marine Life, in which 2,700
researchers from more than 80 countries – including Israel –
The $650 million census spanned oceans from the North Pole
to Antarctica and smaller seas such as our own Mediterranean, from the surfaces
to the depths. It used divers, submersible vehicles, nets, sonar, electronic and
acoustic tagging, genetic identification, listening posts and communications
satellites to count some 250,000 species, including 1,200 newly discovered ones,
from microscopic to large mammals. They also took 5,000 specimens in glass jars
awaiting taxonomic description.
The researchers discovered cold-water
corals extending off Mauritania in North Africa for over 400 kilometers and half
a kilometer deep that comprised one of the world’s longest reefs. They tested a
Caribbean clam species found to have thrived for at least 65 million years even
though it had been thought extinct in the early 1800s. And off the coast of
Chile are newly discovered microbial mats covering an area the size of
But it is only the beginning, as according to Jesse Ausubel – a
co-founder of the global project who works for Rockefeller University and the
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that helped fund the census – an estimated one
billion marine species actually exist.
BUT THE census not only counted
the known species and discovered new ones; it also assessed the movements of
species and – using historical databases – learned whether they have grown
increased or are disappearing due to environmental factors.
A vast amount
of information, videos and photos is available at its official Web site at
Ausubel and Prof. Roberto Danovaro of the Polytechnic
University of Marché (who focused on the Mediterranean) came to Israel recently
to discuss the census and brief marine scientists at the Israel Academy of
Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem.
Among the local experts who took
part in the census were Prof. Yossi Loya, a marine ecologist at Tel Aviv
University’s zoology department and a member of the prestigious academy; Prof.
Alex Keynan, an academy senior adviser who was the director of the Biological
Institute in Nes Ziona in the 1950s and 1960s; Aahron Kaplan of the Eilat
InterUniversity Marine Station; Ruthy Gertwagen of the University of Haifa; and
Barak Herut, director-general of Haifa’s Oceanographic and Limnological Research
The all-day session discussing the findings and impact of the
census was chaired by academy president Prof. Ruth Arnon.
KEYNAN TOLD the
audience that Ausubel, with whom he has cooperated for 20 years, was the “first
scientist to identify the phenomenon of global warming” and the man in charge of
many ambitious marine study projects.
The New York expert noted that 70
percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water; when continents are left
black on a world map and the water given color, it is an unusual image
“The oceans are getting crowded and being used more, even though
much remains unexplored. The number of large ships weighing over 100 gross tons
has tripled since 1960,” he said.
“There are oil drillers, fishing
trawlers, wind propellers to produce electric power and undersea wave machines.
Ships travel such a large variety of routes that a depiction of them looks like
a railroad map. Undersea telecommunications cables have been laid
“There are offshore gas and oil fields in the Mediterranean,
in the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, off Indonesia and in other locations.”
Ausubel added that there has always been natural noise in the seas from
underground earthquakes and the presence of whales and other creatures. But with
shipping and other human interventions, the level of noise now doubles every
decade and affects marine creatures. “Soon, there will be more human noise in
the oceans than natural noise.”
COMPARING THE new data on marine species’
numbers, habitats and behaviors with those obtained from documents going back
millennia – Greek philosopher Aristotle in the Fourth Century BCE identified
crustaceans, echinoderms, mollusks and fish, and is often referred to as the
father of marine biology – has now produced much information on changes, said
Ausubel. During the project, participants have written many books, some of them
put online. The census also produced a documentary film titled Oceans that has
had $83 million in box office income so far, making it the fourth most
successful documentary ever.
“The public took huge interest in the
discoveries,” Ausubel said. Even sculptures were made based on the images, and
songs were written about the creatures.
“There are also thousands of new
technical papers. We looked at the diversity, kinds, distribution and abundance
of marine creatures and where they travel, and we found that life in the oceans
is richer than we imagined. The species are more connected and more scattered
since earlier in human history,” he said. But many of the larger species are
endangered compared to the smaller and microscopic species. Certain kinds of
fish have declined in number by 90%. There is clearly a decline in the abundance
of many species; it is very worrisome and saddening. But at the same time, seals
and some whales, as well as sea birds, have recovered a lot. Chinese researchers
found a lot of jellyfish species.”
According to Ausubel, new habitats are
created even when a whale dies and sinks to the sea floor.
community can form around it. Even an empty dollhouse suspended under the
surface can, over time, develop into a home for a variety of marine species,” he
“Mud volcanoes near Spain and Portugal have produced new varieties
of creatures.” One creature with rasta-like hair was named for the late reggae
singer Bob Marley, while a new deepwater lobster discovered by Ausubel himself
in 2007 in the Philippine Sea was called Dinochelus ausubeli; “my mother had a
T-shirt with its image on it.”
The scientists discovered sea worms in the
Gulf of Mexico with a lifespan of 500 to 600 years.
discovered plenty of worms that can actually find oil,” Ausubel said in his
“We prepared maps and found that many creatures lived where the
Gulf of Mexico oil spill took place. Comparisons can be made of before and
There are also “alien species” that, when geographical changes
occurred, arrived in oceans and seas where they were not native. “The digging of
the Suez Canal made the Mediterranean Sea the capital of 800 alien species. Some
animals such as southern elephant seals and bluefin tuna swim great distances
and are very cosmopolitan,” said Ausubel.
“Some are making incredible
journeys – both vertical and horizontal. There are shrimp that can climb 400
meters up and down, as if they were on the Eiffel Tower.”
scientists developed ways to use graphic images to depict characteristics of
species. For example, “hot spots” containing a large number of a certain certain
type of creature; on a map, they appear as squares of a certain
Many creatures underwent analysis of their mitochondrial DNA, with
each getting a barcode.
Ausubel noted that high school pupils in New York
“bought a lot of sushi, extracted DNA and then persuaded scientists to identify
the types of fish. It turned out that half of the sushi sold in NY is
mislabelled. Cheap tilapia was presented as pricey albacore tuna.”
Italian researcher Danovaro said that the Mediterranean Sea will not become more
salty due to the proliferation of desalination plants that leave salt residue
Instead, the melting of Arctic glaciers due to global warming
will make the Mediterranean and oceans less saline, he
Danovaro, on his first visit to Israel, said the Israeli
scientists had been very valuable to the project. Although the body of water on
Israel’s west coast comprises only 0.8%of the world’s seas, it contains 6% of
its marine life, said Danovaro.
But larger species such as sharks have
been nearly wiped out by pollution, fishing and other causes, allowing smaller
creatures, such as nematode worms, to thrive.
At the beginning of the
census, Danovaro discovered a multi-celled sea creature near Crete that was the
first known to live in an environment totally lacking oxygen. It is found in
salt pockets at a depth of 3.5 kilometers – a very hostile environment, and as
salty as the Dead Sea. It receives its energy, he said, by bonding with sulfates
and sulfides in the water.
He worked with a team of researchers to
retreive sediment samples from a deep salty basin that lacked oxygen bubbles in
He studied them for signs of life.
envirionments have been thought to be exclusively inhabited by viruses, bacteria
The bodies of multicellular animals were previously
discovered, but were thought to have sunk there from upper – oxygenated –
waters. Our results indicate that the animals we recovered were alive. Some, in
fact, also contained eggs.”
The creatures his team found were new members
of the group Loricifera that were active and apparently reproducing despite a
complete absense of oxygen. After Danovaro’s discovery, it is believed that more
like it will be found.
The eastern Mediterranean is considerably warmer
than the waters at the other end, near Spain and Portugal, said Danovaro, thus
very different species live in each spot.
“But some important species
have decreased so much that they don’t have an ecological role anymore. This is
a threat to biodiversity, with more pollution, acidification and temperature
changes affecting species.
“But at least the marine life maps of the
Mediterranean are much better now than they were before.”