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Big Discoveries from an Epic Ocean Census

The new Census of Marine Life is full of amazing discoveries

Athorybia (siphonophore – colonial jelly)

It’s the biggest population census that’s ever been undertaken: a 10-year-long attempt to estimate all the creatures in the world’s oceans. The new Census of Marine Life has stood previous estimates totally on their head. Here are some of the big numbers:

2,700 researchers from 80 countries and territories took part in the Census.

They identified 250,000 new species and 1,200 totally new kinds of animals.

The researchers estimated that about 750,000 other species have yet to be discovered.

The scientists said extremely small life forms make up 90 percent of the ocean’s total living material. One project that took samples from 1,200 sites around the world found microbes with 18 million different DNA sequences, suggesting the likelihood of millions of species, of which only a few thousand have been identified.

More than 500 scientific expeditions were undertaken to complete the study.

Other interesting discoveries

Some of the more unusual discoveries included:

A hairy new species of crab near Easter Island that’s been named the “Yeti crab” after the shaggy sasquatch-like creature that supposedly lives in Tibet.

A squid that’s 21 feet long.

Giant sea-spiders the size of dinner plates.

A Mediterranean deep-water clam that’s believed to have lived around the world for more than 100 million years.

The expeditions revealed that Pacific Bluefin tuna cross the Pacific Ocean three times in 600 days, and that puffins have the longest travels of any animal – 40,000 miles every year as they circle the planet.

…humans are having a devastating impact on the numbers of many species through fishing and pollution.

“We’re finding what we expected: the utterly unexpected,’’ commented Chris German, chief scientist for deep submergence at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

But while other people have understandably called the new discoveries bizarre and weird, German looks at them a different way. “Since so much of the planet is covered by deep oceans, a visiting space alien might consider what I’m studying now as normal for Earth,’’ he said. “We land-living creatures would seem more weird.’’

Some alarming discoveries

Despite this great diversity of life, the report that’s being prepared will warn that humans are having a devastating impact on the numbers of many species through fishing and pollution.

About 40 percent of plankton – basic food for many fish – has disappeared in the past 30 years. And in some areas, sharks have almost completely disappeared, which has a ripple effect on other kinds of ocean life.

To get another view of how life has changed in the oceans and who was eating what when, researchers looked at old New York City restaurant menus, Russian Orthodox monastery records and ancient Roman texts. After looking at 19th century schooner logbooks, they concluded that New England fishermen landed 20 times more cod in 1860 than commercial fleets catch today, and that the fish they caught were considerably bigger than are caught today.