Arctic Science
Radio Script

Collosal Squid
The discovery of this new species of squid, called the colossal squid, in Antarctic waters has scientists wondering what else may be lurking in the depths of the world's oceans. (Courtesy Associated Press)

Ocean Diversity

INTRO: Scientists say cataloging the world's marine species, everything from the smallest bacteria and plankton to the largest whale, could take hundreds of years. But every great feat must begin with a first step. In this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio, Doug Schneider reports on the global effort to chronicle life in the world's oceans.

STORY: Scientists readily admit that it might be a whole lot easier to list the ocean species they know about than to list all of the species they think live there but just haven't been discovered yet. For example, they estimate that there could be more than a million as yet undiscovered species of nemetodes. That's a kind of marine worm that thrives in the mud of the seafloor. The reason for this huge void in knowledge is simple, there's a whole lot of ocean out there that no one has ever seen. Ron O'Dor is a marine biologist at Canada's Dalhousie University.

O'DOR: "If you look at the oceans as a whole, certainly less than five percent, and perhaps as little as one percent of the total ocean has ever been sampled. It's a huge volume. It represents over 90 percent of all the space on the planet that can be occupied by life. It's an average of 2.5 miles deep, and it occupies 70 percent of the total earth surface. Its depth is greater than the depth of the atmosphere where things live."

Throughout this vast global ocean are unique habitats that have evolved with geographic formations like jagged mountain ranges, deep canyons, volcanoes, methane seeps and hydrothermal vents. And then there is what scientists call the abyssal plain. Think of it as a kind of endless underwater desert. Flat and largely featureless, the abyssal plain lies thousands of meters below the ocean surface and represents the single largest habitat on the planet. And virtually no one has ever seen it.

O'DOR: "The abyssal plain is the largest single habitat on the planet. There have been less than a few hundred square meters of the abyssal plain actually sampled because it takes seven hours to drop a grab to the bottom of the deep sea and pull it back up again. So you have a ship out there costing you $30,000 to $40,000 a day and it takes seven hours to get one sample. That's not an easy thing to do."

But as scientists develop better tools for exploring these far-flung corners of the seas, they're finding new species at a fantastic rate. All this research is being done in a variety of ways, and that has led to calls to develop standardized methods for collecting information about sea creatures.

Two years ago, Ron O'Dor took a leave of absence from Dalhousie University to become the chief scientist of the new, privately funded organization called the Census of Marine Life. With a war chest of more than 100 million dollars provided by such benefactors as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the census is a modest ten-year effort to begin the process of cataloging every single marine species, both known and as yet unknown, in the world's oceans.

O'DOR: "The concept of the census is to do the best job we can over a ten-year period."

O'Dor says the census aims to develop standardized survey techniques for unique habitats ranging from the world's coral reefs and deep-sea hydrothermal vents to the seafloor beneath the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps.

O'DOR: "Our biggest goal is to build international cooperation and interest and to convince people that it makes more sense to take the same approach all over the world than to have everyone develop a different way of censusing, counting or monitoring."

The data and species they discover in these surveys will go into a vast database so that scientists working in these areas can have both access to the data and can add their own data and discoveries. In 2010, at the end of the survey, O'Dor says the census will publish a kind of catalog of marine species known to science.

Of course, it's unlikely that at the end of this decade-long effort, scientists will be that much closer to discovering all of the species inhabiting the ocean. After all, Ron O'Dor says that if there are indeed a million new species of nematode worms just waiting to be discovered, it could take taxonomists decades longer to properly describe them all. But it's a start.

This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. I'm Doug Schneider.

Audio version and related websites (above right)

Thanks to the following individual for help preparing this script:

Dr. Ron O'Dor, Senior Scientist
Census of Marine Life
Suite 800, 1755 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20036-2102
Phone: 202-448-1233

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Related websites

Census of Marine Life

Ron O'Dor's Dalhousie University Profile

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