AsianScientist (Nov. 19, 2012) – Up to two thirds of all marine species living in our oceans are unknown to science, says an international consortium of scientists.
The researchers calculate that there are less than one million marine species, far fewer than some previous estimates. Around 226,000 species have been described by science and as many as 72,000 more are in collections awaiting description.
The good news is that the rate of discovery is increasing, with an unprecedented 20,000 new marine species described in the last decade alone, suggesting that most marine species will be discovered this century.
“This is by far the most comprehensive assessment of how many marine species have been described to date, and how many undescribed species experts believe there may be,” says Associate Professor Mark Costello from The University of Auckland who co-led the research with Ward Appeltans of Flanders Marine Institute and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO.
The research has led to the 95 percent completion of the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) – an open-access, online database that has received contributions from almost 300 scientists from 32 countries. The database is continually being updated as new species are discovered.
“Building this was not as simple as it should be, because there has not been any formal way to register species,” said Costello, who is currently Chair of the WoRMS Steering Committee.
A particular problem is the occurrence of multiple descriptions and names for the same species – so called “synonyms,” Costello explained. For instance, each whale or dolphin has on average 14 different scientific names.
As those synonyms are discovered through careful examination of records and specimens, the researchers expect perhaps 40,000 “species” to be struck from the list. But such losses will probably be made up as DNA evidence reveals overlooked “cryptic” species.
While fewer species live in the ocean than on land, marine life represents much older evolutionary lineages that are fundamental to our understanding of life on Earth, Appeltans said. And, in some sense, WoRMS is only the start.
“This database provides an example of how other biologists could similarly collaborate to collectively produce an inventory of all life on Earth,” Appeltans said.
Source: University of Auckland; Photo: Noa Shenkar/WoRMS.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.