'Global warming will make Mediterranean less salty'

Italian expert warns of consequences for the sea; Jerusalem workshop marks decade-long marine life census.

December 21, 2010 04:22
3 minute read.
Multi-celled sea creature can live without oxygen

Multi-celled sea creature can live without oxygen 311. (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)


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The Mediterranean Sea will not become more salty due to the growth of desalination plants that leave salt residue behind, according to an Italian expert who participated in a decade-long census of world marine life. Instead, said Prof. Roberto Danovaro of the Polytechnic University of Marché, the melting of Arctic glaciers due to global warming will make the Mediterranean and oceans less saline.

The head of the department of marine science at the Italian university was speaking in Jerusalem on Monday at a workshop held at the Israel Academy of Science and the Humanities to mark the end of the census, in which 2,700 scientists from 80 countries, including Israel, participated.

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A total of $650 million was spent by US, European and other sources for the first-ever project, which documented the presence of some 250,000 species at various depths, from microscopic creatures to whales. Nevertheless, scientists believe that 750,000 more marine species remain to be discovered.

Danovaro, on his first visit to Israel, said at the workshop that the Israeli scientists had been very valuable to the project. Besides discovering some 1,200 new marine species through sampling and observation, the multinational team discovered that marine life was richer than previously believed, as well as more interconnected and more altered due to environmental influences. There were also large areas still unexplored, he told an audience of 80 scientists, including immunologist and academy president Prof. Ruth Arnon, and university students in the field.

“We now have a benchmark for development and will be able to see changes in marine creatures as the years pass, and, it is hoped, repair damage that man has caused them,” he said.

Some 40 experts at 25 institutions in countries that lie along the Mediterranean Sea participated in the effort to estimate and study its biodiversity.

Although the body of water on Israel’s west coast comprises only 0.8 percent of the world’s seas, it contains 6% of its marine life, said Danovaro. But larger species such as sharks have nearly been wiped out by pollution, fishing and other causes, leaving 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 that totally lacks 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.

Tel Aviv University expert Prof. Yossi Loya said this discovery was very important to understanding the beginning of life on Earth and thinking about life beyond.

Researchers are planning to conduct genetic mapping studies on the organism to learn more. The photos of the loricifera show it stained pink in the lab to make its organs more prominent, and an egg is clearly seen inside.

Jesse Ausubel, a co-founder of the global project who works for Rockefeller University and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, joked that “the complexity of Jerusalem and Israel makes the census of world marine life seem easy.”

Knowledge about marine biodiversity was sought not only out of scientific curiosity, but to see the effects of the growing use of the oceans and seas for oil and gas exploration, fishing trawlers, communications cables, wind propellers and undersea wave machines.

Man’s interference with nature has also created a great deal of noise that affects the organisms below, Ausubel said.

The huge amount of data was obtained from old maps and archives, testing, sampling and even examining water stored in small discarded bottles to investigate the microbes inside. New habitats in mud volcanoes or even living off the bodies of dead sharks that fell to the sea bed, or “dollhouses” intentionally left to sink, have been created. Ausubel said that a lobster he discovered – dinochelus ausubeli – was named for his family, and his mother wears a Tshirt with its image.

A Science and Health Page feature on the workshop will appear on Sunday, January 2.

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