New species discovered through marine life census

In early October, results of the marine life census revealed the discovery of more than  6,000 new species. The 10-year exploration concluded with a presentation of the results in England.

Darlene Trew Crist, director of communications for the Census of Marine Life, said that, the results revealed how mysterious and foreign the underwater world is. She said the research investigated parts of the ocean not previously investigated.

“95 percent of it is still unexplored. Wherever we looked we found species,” Crist said.

The expedition included nearly 2,700 scientists from more than 80 nations and more than 600 institutions. The project cost $650 million.

But, Charles Messing, Ph.D., professor at the Oceanographic Center, said there was still much to be discovered.

“We are still scratching the surface. Just on the Intracoastal and Broward, there are dozens of crustaceans and worms that haven’t been discovered,” he said.

Messing specializes in Crinoidea, a class that includes sea lilies and feather stars. They belong to the echinoderms, a phylum of marine animals that includes sea stars and urchins. He said he discovered four new crinoid species in the Bahamas last year. One of the species was a foot-tall sea lily.

“It tells us more about dis-tribution of life on Earth. Its closest relatives live in the Indian and eastern Atlantic oceans,” Messing said. “It was as if you knew about lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs, and then discovered jaguars on the other side of the world.”

He said more species have not been discovered because there are not many people with the expertise to describe them.

“There has been a shift in molecular biology: ‘All I need is DNA.’ We have to know what they look like. There is no DNA scanner like in ‘Star Trek.’ You have to tell them apart,” Messing said.

There are names, descriptions, locations, but not much is known about their role in the ecosystem, lifespan, and reproduction, Messing said.

It was assumed that certain species covered only certain areas. But research results revealed that most species cover an extremely large area that can reach from pole to pole.

For example, Messing said that the Caribbean rough shark is a deepwater shark that looks like a schooner that swallowed a watermelon. It was seen in Venezuela and then reported off the Yucatán Peninsula, West Indies and Honduras. Messing said he also saw  the creature in the Bahamas in the 1990s.

“We know almost nothing about it and it keeps popping up in different places,” he said.

Crist said the biggest discovery in the census was how connected humans are to marine life.

“The ocean is changing very rapidly. Humans are the primary cause. We are intimately connected to the ocean. Every breath we take comes from there. We have to protect it,” she said.

But Messing said it is unknown exactly how connected we are to the oceans and how long that connection will last.

“Some people are concerned that we may be on the verge of a major extinction. With increasing human population, pollution, and global warming, we may even lose species before we even know what we lost,” Messing said.

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