They were the sea's best kept secrets - until now. As work on the world's first ocean census inches closer to completion, scientists working on the decade-long project claim to have found over 5,000 new marine organisms that were not known to mankind all this while.
A network of 2,000 scientists from 82 nations have been working since the year 2000 to prepare an inventory of marine organisms in the world, which will be released in London in October this year. The project costs around $650 million.
'We have found more than 5,000 new marine species and many more are lying in jars yet to be analysed,' Jesse Ausubel, programme coordinator of the Census of Marine Life (CoML) scientific steering committee, told IANS during a trip to India.
Scientists engaged in the census have observations on 200,000 to 250,000 forms of marine lives which will be available in an online encyclopaedia. But they think it is just the tip of the iceberg and millions of more species living in the sea are yet to be discovered.
'We are all eagerly waiting for October 2010 when we will present the first census of marine life as we don't have any details about marine organisms. It will have details about the smallest organisms, the microbes, to the very largest, the blue whales, which live in the sea,' said Ausubel.
Scientists, divided into 14 different teams spread across the world, carried out over 400 expeditions, some in difficult-to-reach areas of the Arctic region.
'The first census will not only advance knowledge about life in the global ocean, including the first ever complete catalogue of marine life but will serve to inform decisions about how to best manage and preserve the resources that live below the surface around the world,' said Ausubel.
Ian Poiner, chairman of CoML, said: 'We want to know how climate change, more acid in the ocean, more pollutants and more sound are affecting marine life and we cannot find this until we have a comprehensive baseline of marine life.
'Now that we will have an inventory of marine life, say, by 2020 or 2030 we can say that certain animals are moving to cooler waters due to heating of the oceans or from shallow water to deeper due to pollution or harmful methods of fishing,' said Pioner, who also heads the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
The scientists found that there are a large number of undiscovered species in the deep sea.
'About 90 percent of species we recovered in the deep sea were new to science. Bigger species have been explored but species of the small size between 500 micron and 1 mm has maximum diversity on the earth. They live in 1,000 to 2,000 metres depth and get enough food and energy to survive,' said Myriam Sibuet, vice chairperson of CoML.
The international scientific steering committee of CoML has simultaneously started genetic barcoding of old and new species. DNA barcoding is a method that uses a short genetic marker in an organism's DNA to identify it as belonging to a particular species.
'Initially, we are trying barcoding for over 50,000 of the 200,000 species and have taken species of some of the major groups like molluscs, gastropods, sea cucumbers, fish and microbes. We have already barcoded 10,000 species,' said Sibuet.
After releasing the World Ocean Census, the CoML team will meet in 2011 to decide their future course of action.
Scientists in the census were also impressed with the high level of Indian participation in the census.
'It has acted as a great linker of all the nations and specially in India we got a chance to explore new technology that can be used for exploring the ocean. It has opened up new vistas for other programmes,' said Mohideen Wafar, chairperson of the Indian Ocean team of CoML.
(Richa Sharma can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)