The oceans are inspiring for those of us who are sad we missed the golden age of exploration, when the edges of our maps still needed filling in, and so many incredible creatures were yet to be discovered. The deep sea is, as Captain Kirk would say, the final frontier for scientists exploring the vast range of life on earth.
And 2010 is an important year for these modern adventurers – the year when the decade-long Census of Marine Life will be finished. Since 2000, scientists in more than 80 countries have been studying and mapping the diversity of life in the oceans, going some small way to filling in the huge gaps in our knowledge of this enormous habitat.
We know of about 1.5 million species that live on land, but only about 250,000 that live in the sea. Since the oceans make up by far the majority of the earth’s surface, it’s probably safe to say that we’ve missed a few. And probably some big ones – it’s quite easy to hide in thousands of metres of pitch-black water.
The census has already added more than 5000 species to the oceans’ tally – including some amazingly beautiful ones you can see in their image gallery. We know so little about what is living here, and this project has scratched the surface and shown us some of the previously unknown creatures we share the planet with.
I would be quite happy if they were doing all this just to supply me with lovely pictures of shrimps and jellyfish, but there is a higher purpose. By understanding the diversity of marine life, we might be able to work out how to safeguard it and conserve important species such as tuna.
But it’s not all about ‘charismatic megafauna’ – the Census has made huge strides in understanding the tiny organisms that make up the foundations of ocean ecosystems. These foundations can be literally huge – researchers found a microbial mat the size of Greece off the west coast of South America. As the Census website puts it, ‘marine microbes are the tiniest cogs essential to planetary functioning’. Small can be very mighty in the ocean, and Census research suggests that there might be a billion species of these tiny creatures.
The researchers have turned over a pretty big stone to find that many new critters lurking underneath. And it shows the crossover between understanding marine life for our own benefit – unravelling how it affects climate, for example – and asking questions just for the sake of knowing the answer. I can’t imagine many things more exciting than finding a new species in the depths of the ocean, and knowing that no other human has seen it before.
So this project isn’t just a necessary step towards a better idea of what the oceans hold and how we can look after them. It’s also an inspiring example of how our exploration of the world we live in is by no means over. It may not have caught the public imagination in the same way that space exploration does, but this project has all the magic of real discovery.