November 19, 2012

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According to a thorough new analysis, between one-third and two-thirds of the species that live in the world’s ocean have yet to be named and described. The new report estimates that there are between 700,000 and one million marine species living beneath the waves. Overall, the study counted about 400,000 described species, over half of which have already been catalogued in a new World Register of Marine Species.

The authors of the study point out that the question of how many marine species exist is important because it provides a metric for how much we do and do not know about life in the oceans. Going forward, those involved say that the study should help better focus conservation efforts where they’re needed most.

“You can only love something if you know it,” said Ward Appeltans, a marine biologist at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and the first author of the study. “We will not save the world with this result, but we may start understanding it better.”

Appeltans worked with 120 of the world’s leading experts on specific groups of marine organisms to come up with the new estimates. Based on individual’s intricate knowledge of living groups and taxonomy, in addition to their past research, experts came up with educated guesses about the number of known and unknown species in their own particular fields of expertise.

“We know we’re losing biodiversity at a rate that is 1,000 times faster than we should be, and if we’re going to stop that hemorrhaging of species, we have to know what the species are and most important, where they are,” said Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University.

The current rates of discovery and the new estimation of life beneath the waves, suggest that if the current trend continues, most marine species will be discovered this century. Newly discovered and  named species will undoubtably be widely celebrated within the conservation community. After all, as Appeltans suggested above, knowing what is beneath the waves truly is the first step to ensuring the long-term protection and survival of all marine species.

To see the study in Current Biology click HERE.

Top photo: These Clavelina moluccensis, have been identified. Credit: WORMS photo gallery/ Paulay, Gustav, 2010

 

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