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A decade ago, scientists launched an ambitious effort to figure out how many species live in the world’s oceans. That project is now wrapping up, and researchers say they have a much better idea of what’s happening in our underwater ecosystems. We’ll go inside the Census of Marine Life and hear about some of the more unusual animals documented by the project.
- Ronald O'Dor Senior Scientist for the Census of Marine Life
- Huw Griffiths Marine Biologist with the British Antarctic Survey
- Patricia Miloslavich Senior Scientist, The Census of Marine Life; Professor of Marine Biology at the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela
National Geographic Video
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It all started with a very basic question. What lives in the sea? Ten years ago, scientists launched an ambitious project to discover as many marine species as they could. A decade later, that project, known as the Census of Marine Life, is about to wrap up. And researchers now have at least a partial answer to that question.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey say there are at least 230,000 species living in our oceans. But there are many more animals out there that have yet to be discovered, and some of them will surely disappear before we can find them. In this hour, we'll talk with scientists around the world about some of the more unusual species they discovered and what they tell us about the health of our planet. Joining us in studio is Ron O'Dor. he's senior scientist with the Census of Marine Life and a professor of Biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Ron O'Dor, thank you very much for joining us again.
MR. RON O'DORIt's my pleasure.
NNAMDIIt's been awhile.
O'DORGlad to be here.
NNAMDITake us back to 2000 when this project began. What did you know then about life in the oceans compared with what you know now?
O'DORWell, there was an estimate made in 2000 that about 230,000 species might exist in the ocean. We're much more confident of that number now, and it's -- in fact, we're pretty sure that it's going to run up at least as high as 250,000 species by the time we report out in October. And of -- I guess, the big change is that we're pretty confident about what we don't know now and the...
NNAMDITwo hundred and thirty, you went into this estimating. You're now confident that it is at least 230, so now we know. We've got 230,000 known species. How many unknown species do you think are out there? and what kinds are we talking about? Are they mostly fish?
O'DORWell, when we started, the best estimate of the total number was somewhere between one and 10 million species of animals and plants. And we're now reasonably confident that the high estimate there is too high, so that we think that somewhere between one and maybe as high as two million species out there to pull together. We have 187,000 of them recorded now. And -- we've been around to people all over the world, and we know what they don't know. And we're pretty confident that we're going to find at least three, maybe four times as many species as we have now.
NNAMDILet's figure out what our audience knows. Do you have questions about what lives in the oceans, your own estimates, maybe? If so, you can call us at 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. You can ask a question there. Or you might just want to make a comment. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron O'Dor, whales, sea lions and dolphins tend to get a lot of the attention when we talk about marine life. But I'm guessing they're only a tiny portion of the total when we're talking about life in the oceans, right, just maybe less than 10 percent?
O'DOROh, the fish, as you mentioned earlier, represent about 12 percent of the total number of species in the ocean. Other vertebrates, which would include the dolphins and turtles, they're only 2 percent. So these things that we think of as being the common creatures in the ocean are, in fact, just a very small piece of the action. And the most common of all or the most specios (sp?) of all -- is the word we use -- are the crustaceans. Twenty percent of all the species that are known in the ocean are crustaceans, little shrimp-like things of various and sundry sizes -- some as big as lobsters, some so small you can't see them. Seventeen percent are mollusks, things like snails and clams. And most of them are pretty good to eat, so we're worried about where they're going to go.
NNAMDITell us about some of the more unusual species you and your colleagues encountered in the course of the census. I'm interested -- I'm going to just come right out and ask.
NNAMDITell me about dragon fish.
O'DORThat's the one that we have described as being the most cosmopolitan. It's more or less everywhere. It's been found in all of the different oceans. And dragon fish are -- well, there's a close relative of dragon fish that we had a picture of that made a lot of newspapers in the last few weeks, and it has teeth on its tongue. Isn't that a terrible thing to think about?
NNAMDIIt is a terrible thing to conceive of, that dragon fish have teeth on their tongues.
O'DORYeah, yes. And they're not really so big, but they can actually eat something approaching 10 times as big as they are.
NNAMDIAnd they want a taste while they're chewing so there are teeth on their tongues.
O'DORThey don't want it to get away.
NNAMDIThey can eat things 10 times their own size? And what's the size of a dragon fish anyway?
O'DORWell, they're really -- I don't know. They were described as being about the size of a banana, but bananas are pretty variable in size. So they're not big fish, at least not until they fill their stomachs up, and then they get a whole lot bigger.
NNAMDIIf he can eat 10 -- something 10 times the size of a banana, I'm not going near a dragon fish. How about fish that you discover that have antifreeze in their blood to protect them in extremely cold waters?
O'DORThis is very common in Antarctica. There are also some in the Arctic. And the waters in both Antarctica and in the Arctic can get below freezing by quite a bit -- because it's salt water -- so down as low as about minus 4 degrees Celsius. And so at that temperature, the water in the blood of the animals will freeze, and so they have to have antifreeze just to stay alive.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Ron O'Dor. He is senior scientist with the census of marine life and a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Speaking of strange, what's the strangest sea creature that you've ever encountered? And what are the marine animals that fascinate you most? 800-433-8850. Here is John in Hyattsville, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHello, thanks for having me. Mr. O'Dor, one of the things -- I'm interested mainly in fungi, but I'm interested in all life in biology. And I was wondering about the question of, what is a species and the best way to distinguish one species from another? I was wondering about DNA sequencing and what you think of that?
NNAMDIHow do you distinguish one species from another?
O'DORWell, that's been a perennial problem ever since they invented species. The -- it's not an easy question. Historically, one of the tests is that the -- if two organisms can interbreed, they are typically of the same species. But that's not always true. And sometimes species don't have the opportunity to interbreed, so that doesn't necessarily work. But the DNA -- we've used DNA sequencing. We call it the barcode of life. It's a particular segment of DNA that has turned out to be very good at identifying and distinguishing between species.
O'DORIt's not perfect, but it's about 95 percent effective in most groups. And that's as effective as anything else, so we like the barcode. And one of the problems is -- for the census has been that we've discovered over 6,000 species, and we've only managed to give names to 1,000 -- a little over 1,000 of them. And the problem is that we -- getting people to describe a new species takes a lot of time. It's a very historical process. You have to get a paper published. And the barcode gives us a way of just -- it's a barcode. It's a little note that says, oh, here's a new species. As far as we can tell, it's never been seen before.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, John. We move on to Ann in Baltimore, Md. Ann, your turn. Go ahead, please.
ANNOh, thank you. I just wanted to say that my 5-year-old daughter watches the National Geographic videos on the National Geographic website, and ones that are there from the census of marine life are just her absolute favorites. And I just think it's wonderful and thank you for doing it. And thank you to the National Geographic for putting them up on their site.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up, Ann. Because if you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you can see one of those videos from the National Geographic, and you can also ask questions or make comments about this very broadcast. So thank you very much for mentioning that, Ann.
ANNThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd on to Gino in Washington D.C. Gino, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GINOHi. I wanted to know about the sort of numerical breakdown of where all the new species are coming from. What types are they? And then what are the most successful techniques of collecting them, not about the barcode identification as much as -- you know, is it deep sea rovers or fishing nets or what have you that collect the new species?
O'DORWell, perhaps, the most amazing things -- there was an article written last year about -- called the "Census of Marine Life: The Transparent Ocean Project." Really, that's something that we like to think about, and you can't see in most of the ocean. But we have acoustic systems, sound -- we can see with sound. So we send sound beams down, look at what reflects back from them and reconstruct that into images. And so this is really powerful. You can see a shrimp three kilometers down in the water column, and we can count fish in a 100 kilometer radius around one of these sound instruments. So that's a very powerful tool.
O'DORThere aren't enough of them to be everywhere all the time, but it's moving in that direction. We also use a whole range of what we call remotely-operated vehicles or ROVs. These typically have HDTV cameras on them, and they move around all the way down to the bottom of the sea. We've had one down as low as 10 kilometers down in the ocean, taking pictures, bringing them back up. That's where these gorgeous pictures, that the National Geographic reproduces, come from, and so some of these instrumented packages are actually robots. We don't even have a cable that goes out to them. We just program them to go out and sort of map an area. So those are some of the big ones.
NNAMDIWhat about creatures that live very deep down in the sea, as well as 5,000 meters or three miles below the ocean waves, sea species that have never known sunlight? Who are these?
O'DORWell, there's a really interesting -- one of the things -- Fred Grassle, who is the sort of the originator of the concept of the Census of Marine Life, he's a professor at Rutgers University. He was the first biologist to land on a deep sea vent -- hot, steaming water coming out of the middle of the earth that is -- just leaks out of the mantle of the earth. And it's full of nutrients, and so these deep sea vents have organisms that have never seen the sun. They live entirely off chemical energy that comes out of the core of the planet.
O'DORSo that's, perhaps, the best example. And we have a project that only goes around looking at deep sea vents and seeps. Seeps are places where oil and things like that come out of the ground. So they're not necessarily hot, but they have a chemical energy source.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation on the Census of Marine Life, still taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you any questions about what lives in the oceans or thoughts about what you think the U.S. and other countries should be doing to protect creatures living in the ocean, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the Census of Marine Life. If you have questions about the marine census or about any of the creatures that live in the sea, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Or you can send us an e-mail. Joining us in studio is Ron O'Dor, senior scientist with the Census of Marine Life and a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Joining us now by telephone from Cambridge in the U.K. is Huw Griffiths, marine biologist with the British Antarctic Survey. Huw Griffiths, thank you for joining us.
MR. HUW GRIFFITHSIt's a pleasure.
NNAMDIYour work focuses on Antarctica. What are some of the more interesting species that can be found there?
GRIFFITHSA lot of people would think from looking at Antarctica from the surface that it's a pretty dead place with just a few penguins scattered about and a lot of snow and ice.
GRIFFITHSBut when you go into the water, you've got as many species as you find on a tropical reef or something like that. But there's the added influence of this very cold water, and the cold water enables the animals to grow very large because there's a lot of oxygen dissolved in the cold water. So you end up with animals that are tiny in tropical and warm water places, so you end up with sea spiders that will be normally the size of your fingernail getting to the size of dinner plates.
GRIFFITHSAnd you end up with sponges growing to two meters tall. And so you end up with some very strange sights of giant animals. They're slow moving because it's very cold down there. But it's amazing to see some of these huge things that -- it looks as if you're looking down a microscope, but they're there for real (word?).
NNAMDISo that's where I would find my giant squid if I were looking for one?
GRIFFITHSYes. Southern Ocean is one of the homes of the giant squid.
NNAMDIYou got to explore a sea that had never been fished before. Tell us about that.
GRIFFITHSI was lucky. It was part of the census' field program, so one of the ships that went down to Antarctica looking for new species, and we went to the Amundsen Sea, which is a very remote part of Antarctica. Because a lot of the other seas you can get to from neighboring continents, so you can get to parts of Antarctica from South America or South Africa or through New Zealand and Australia. But the Amundsen Sea is on the wrong side of Antarctica to be able to get to it easily because there's no land if you go northwards and almost until you reach the Arctic.
GRIFFITHSSo it's very expensive to get there and very difficult to get there. And there's a lot of icebergs, and the seas are very rough. So we spent two months getting there and back. And we fished, as I said, for the first time -- we were the first people to put fishing nets down and see what lived in that sea.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Huw Griffiths. He is a marine biologist with the British Antarctic Survey. He joins us by telephone from Cambridge in the U.K. In our Washington studio is Ron O'Dor, senior scientist with the Census of Marine Life and a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Do you have questions about creatures that live in the water off Antarctica? Now is the time to call, 800-433-8850, or just shoot us an e-mail to email@example.com. Huw, did you see evidence of climate change on your visits to Antarctica?
GRIFFITHSOn my visit -- it's very difficult 'cause we're based on the ship. But I have colleagues who work in Antarctica and have been studying the area for years, and they've noticed that the glaciers and the ice that feeds into the sea and creates the icebergs have started to retreat. And we've had a lot of speeding up of some of these glaciers as well that is caused by warming so that they can flow quicker into the sea, which, again, then will impact on the animals living on the sea floor. Because the more icebergs that are created, the more damage the icebergs do to the sea floor and kill some of these animals.
NNAMDIRon O'Dor, what has the census overall told you about climate change?
O'DORWell, the most obvious things that I have seen -- last week, I was in Vancouver, and the Fraser River, which is home to a very large run of Sakai salmon -- last year, there were 10 million Sakai salmon missing. This year, there are 20 million Sakai salmon that nobody was expecting. And we think that part of that is just the result of changing migration patterns and changing temperature regime. So the animals don't know quite where to go, and they don't get the timing right. So this is a huge impact, I think. One of the other places where we've seen really powerful evidence of climate change has been among birds in the islands in the North Atlantic, Svalbard.
O'DORAnd they have -- the birds have been -- the chicks have been starving because, instead of getting great big, fat, juicy shrimp out of the water, they're getting little, scrawny ones that are coming up from more southern waters. And so you're seeing these changes in where things are.
NNAMDIHere is Joe in Mount Airy, Md. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEYes, thank you, Kojo. Recently, I caught the tail end of a documentary on TV about the new European aquarium -- the largest in Europe -- that opened in Valencia, and I was hoping that your guests or one of your guests could speak regarding the aquarium. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIHuw Griffiths, do you know anything about that?
GRIFFITHSActually, I was lucky enough to visit the aquarium as part of a visit to Valencia with the World Marine Biology last year.
NNAMDII guessed that.
GRIFFITHSAnd I think Ron was there as well.
NNAMDII guessed that, too.
GRIFFITHSYeah, and it is a very impressive facility, and it covers a range of the world's environments as well. So it has cold water, warm, (word?) the polar regions and even has a few penguins, and that made me happy. But, also, it goes right through to the tropics. And it's a very good educational facility because people get to see bits of the entire world and how different and how special the oceans are from all around the world.
NNAMDIAnything you'd like to add to that, Ron O'Dor?
O'DORWell, I found it really scary because one of the things they did to us was they put us on stage to talk to an audience. And behind the stage was a giant aquarium, and so nobody paid any attention to us the entire time we were up there because they were just watching the fish go back and forth and eat each other and stuff like that.
NNAMDIWe all have to work difficult rooms sometimes. Here is Julia in Washington D.C. Julia, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
JULIEHi. I was wondering. I kind of got interested in the oceans from high school when I did policy debate on ocean topics. But I feel like most people don't know that much about it and that with -- also with the recent spill, it shocked me how often people act like water life is only on the surface. And even when they know better, they still act that way. Like, if we let things sink, or we don't see them, then it doesn't matter. So I was wondering what more can be done to get people interested in all the cool stuff and with photos and everything of the neat creatures, like the football fish and all of that?
NNAMDIAnd what can be done to educate children in school, Ron O'Dor?
O'DORWell, we hope that the visuals that we are able to bring back with these wonderful machines show people that it's not empty. It's not dark. Well, it is dark, but we can light it up. And there are things that are there in vast numbers. That's really been one of our main missions and our alliance with the National Geographic Society to get these images out to people so that people know what's down there. It's -- I guess there's a saying, out of sight, out of mind. And I think that that's the problem for most people. So if we can just get them in front of their eyes, I think people will respond. And I think kids are most responsive of all.
NNAMDIAnd a reminder, Julia, you and others can see some of that National Geographic video at our website, kojoshow.org. Questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. Ron O'Dor, I am glad that Julia mentioned the BP oil spill because the Gulf of Mexico is obviously the body of water that many scientists are worried about in the wake of that oil spill. What did you find when it comes to biodiversity in the Gulf?
O'DORWell, we just finished a survey, which Patricia is going to talk about later, I believe. But the Gulf of Mexico has about 15,000 species in it. The most species rich oceans in the world are in Japan and Australia, each with about 33,000. But the Gulf of Mexico is hugely diverse, and, fortunately, a group at the Heart Institute that's part of the Census of Marine Life had just finished a huge 700-page book on what lives in the Gulf of Mexico. It came out in February of this year, I believe. And so, this time, we actually have a great record of what was there, and so we'll be able to see how things are changing.
NNAMDIThank you for mentioning what was there and what is there. We can get back to Antarctica on that note. Huw Griffiths, can you tell us how participating in the census has impacted your understanding of life in the waters of Antarctica? What do you now see differently?
GRIFFITHSI have started to appreciate, as Ron mentioned earlier, what we know and what we know we can't possibly know at the moment. So there's a lot of gaps in our knowledge. And when we first started the Antarctic part of the census, we thought there were around 4,000 species that we knew of. By the end of the census, we know that there are coming close to 11,000 species in Antarctica that we know of now. But if we keep discovering things at the rates we're finding them, we're looking at finding double that amount again. So the numbers of species down in a place that everyone considered to be a desert is huge and that life can exist in the most extreme environments.
NNAMDIHow does the slight increases in water temperatures in Antarctica -- how does that affect the kinds of animals that live in those surface waters, such as plankton?
GRIFFITHSIt's amazing that small temperature differences can affect the species you find somewhere. So a lot of the time you can almost tell the water temperature if you just look at the animals you find in it because a lot of these animals are very specific to certain temperature ranges. So the minute you warm it up, it becomes more suitable for a different species that could come in from outside and replace it. So, as in the Arctic, animals from warm water regions are moving up into the Arctic, and the same thing is going to happen in the Antarctic where animals from outside Antarctica are going to come in slowly and replace the native coldwater creatures.
GRIFFITHSAnd the same thing could happen deeper in the water column as well, where, at the moment, we're missing certain key groups of animals, such as crabs and sharks in Antarctica because it's just too cold for them. So we have animals that live in Antarctica but have never had to face those predators before. But if the water is warm enough for crabs and sharks to move in, then these animals have no defenses against these predators and could be easy prey and killed off very quickly.
NNAMDIRon O'Dor, Eric in Washington has a question about the Gulf oil spill. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Eric, you need to turn your radio down and just talk on the telephone. I'm going to put you on hold and come back to you. In the meantime, we will go to Morgan in Washington D.C. Morgan, your turn. Go ahead, please. Hi, Morgan.
MORGANYes, sir. I just read a sort of cheesy little bit here. I'm reading Bill Bryson's book. It's called the "History of Nearly Everything."
MORGANAnd he mentioned something that really surprised me. The burgess shale that he discovered in 1932 had -- it completely upset the apple cart on all the number of phylums that were available. And they weren't really discovered in this collection down here until 1932. I'd care to hear your comment on that, about what they really found and why it took so long to discover it. And then, secondly, speaking of sea (word?), the White Cliffs of Dover really are created by a bunch of sea creatures, a whole -- something like 92 percent of all the carbon or carbon dioxide on the earth. So I wonder if you'd comment on those two kind of interesting facts.
NNAMDIBurgess shale, White Cliffs of Dover, Ron O'Dor?
O'DORWell, the burgess shale is a very interesting case because it showed us that life has evolved in different ways and many times. So the vast majority of all the species that have ever existed on earth are gone. So we could -- some people have taken the view that, well, why do you need to protect marine life? Something else will just evolve and replace it. The only trouble I have with that idea is that I might go with it because...
NNAMDII share their concern.
O'DORHalf of the oxygen you breathe, that we all breathe, comes from the ocean. And it wasn't always that way. So you raise a very interesting question about diversity. And the question about the White Cliffs of Dover is, indeed -- it's something of concern because part of what's happening with climate change, with the increases in CO2, is that the ocean is acidifying. And in some areas, there's actually enough acidity in the water to prevent these kinds of calcareous creatures from growing. And in some places, it's even strong enough to dissolve the ancient corals, which are the creatures that make up the White Cliffs of Dover. So we need to be careful. There's a problem looming for us all.
NNAMDIHere is Glenn in Culpeper, Va. Glenn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GLENNHello, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call.
GLENNGentlemen, I'm a deeply concerned environmentalist. My concerns for the health of the oceans are vast and grave. And I understand that the greatest threat to biodiversity in the marine life is, of course, fishing and trolling, and, essentially, we're strip mining the oceans and murdering the oceans. And I felt that, as a concerned citizen and an environmentalist, the best thing I can do -- the most potent act I can do would be to stop eating seafood. That's potent both ethically, morally and biologically.
GLENNSo my question to people who are conservationists and concerned with the oceans or claim to be concerned about the oceans is why don't you stop eating fish? And I know many people continue to eat fish, and then they'll talk to me about their terrible concerns. So I think it would be consistent, and I recommend everyone just stop eating fish immediately.
NNAMDIThey'll tell you they need their omega-3 fatty acids. That's why they eat fish. But from a general policy perspective, let's talk about Antarctica first, Huw Griffiths. From a policy perspective, what can be done to protect the waters of Antarctica? Because it's not like any one nation controls that area.
GRIFFITHSAntarctica's quite a good case study for the rest of the world to look at, actually, because back in the '80s, there was a case of overfishing. And some of the fisheries looked like they'd collapse, but because it was an international area, it was much easier to get agreement between countries because no one country owned it to be able to heavily restrict fishing in Antarctica. And fish docks have been able to come back. And it's important to remember that you can't always stop an activity such as fishing because a lot of people's livelihoods depend on it. But you can control it, if it's done correctly, to the point where the seas can recover, and people can still make their living from it.
NNAMDIYour take on this, Ron O'Dor?
O'DORWell, I have to confess that I actually have stopped eating fish, but I still eat squid because squid have been increasing in numbers as people have removed their predators. And so I think maybe -- well, I happen to be a squid biologist. But I also think that we have to control our influence on what happens in the sea, and just stopping eating fish is not going to solve the problem. If everyone did that, it would be better for the fish, but I don't see that happening.
O'DORSo I think that we really have to -- one of the things the census has shown is that, as Huw said, things do recover when you leave them alone. And so we need to actively legislate ways for organisms to recover. Marine protected areas are a powerful tool. If you just close a fishery in an area completely, you get rapid recovery, and some of that -- some of those recovered species come back and become parts of the fishery again.
NNAMDII didn't get a chance to thank our caller, but thank you very much for your call. What do you think the U.S. and other countries should be doing to protect creatures living in the ocean? You can call us at 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and make a suggestion there. Huw Griffiths, thank you very much for joining us.
NNAMDIHuw Griffiths is a marine biologist with the British Antarctic Survey. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, more of your calls, or you can shoot e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur conversation is about the Census of Marine Life, which is wrapping up. We're talking with Ron O'Dor, senior scientist with the census and a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. And joining us now by telephone from Caracas, Venezuela, is Patricia Miloslavich, who is a senior scientist with the census and a professor of marine biology at the Universidad Simon Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela. Patricia, thank you for joining us.
MS. PATRICIA MILOSLAVICHThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIYour work has focused on the Caribbean. How would you characterize the overall health of the Caribbean Ocean? How many species live there?
MILOSLAVICHWell, so far with our review, we have inventoried a little more than 12,000 species for the Caribbean. Most of the species in the Caribbean are fish, crustaceans and mollusks. All the three account for more than 60 percent of all species known. And if you add the sponges and the corals and the sea urchins and the microalgae, then you get a total of almost 90 percent. The rest of the groups are quite unknown, especially the smaller ones, and everything that is below 500 (word?) is almost unknown to us. And we thought that we had a very good knowledge about fish, for example, because the Caribbean is a region that has many islands, and most of these islands rely on fish as a protein source for their populations.
MILOSLAVICHBut, still, we found the rate of discovery of fish in this region is still very, very high, and many discoveries are made every year, mostly because what we known is restricted to the coastal zones. But we know almost nothing of the huge basin in between or the deep seas.
NNAMDIYou're particularly interested in areas close to the shore in the Caribbean. Why is that?
NNAMDIEspecially rocky shores.
MILOSLAVICHYes. And rocky shores and sea grass beds. There's not much of a history of exploration of deep sea in the Caribbean. Historically speaking, very few vessels with deep sea exploration capacity have come to the Caribbean. The Census of Marine Life had one expedition just this year so most of the researchers in the Caribbean will be focused on the near shore. Very few will be focused on the deep sea because mostly technical and capacity issues. But why rocky shores and sea grass beds and not coral reefs, like almost everyone else in the Caribbean, well, partly there's not enough people working in corals in the Caribbean.
MILOSLAVICHBut what I like more about these ecosystems was that, first of all, they were not as well-known, and, second, that the coral reefs -- unfortunately, due to climate change and the impact by human populations on their ecosystem -- are being replaced slowly by rocky shore communities. The corals die, but the structure remains. And this structure has been colonized by, first of all, microalgae, so they become like rocky shores in a way with a whole new ecosystem that replaced the former coral reef.
MILOSLAVICHSo that was one of the reasons to study these.
NNAMDIYou're particularly interested also in mollusks, which include snails, squids and octopi. Why are these species so interesting in your view?
MILOSLAVICHWell, I leave the naked, unshelled mollusks to Ron. I work more with snails -- gastropod snails, not even bivalves. I work more with snails. They have a -- first of all, they're a very, very diverse group, very interesting from an evolutionary perspective. They are a very old group, but the diversity -- it's just that stunning. It's one of the most highly diverse groups in the planet after the insects. So that and what I like more about the mollusks is that they have a balanced array of reproductive strategies. And also the reproductive strategies go with their history -- with their evolutionary history being so you can still find, today, species that have very primitive ways of reproducing, like broadcasting their gametes into the water and having external fertilization.
MILOSLAVICHAnd then the larvae that goes through the plankton for a long time and then settles down, and you have a little snail back on the sea -- on the seashore. But then you have very, very evolved and very sophisticated reproductive strategy of females that put their eggs inside egg capsules and provide them with special sources of food. And the capsules in which the eggs are put in are also -- have a vast array of morphological ways of being so they may look like flowers or tulips or just like -- so it's very, very amazing. So that was my main interest in...
NNAMDII am glad you mentioned females because a particular interest seems to be the queen conch. Could you tell us a little bit about how humans have affected populations of this particular species?
MILOSLAVICHYes. The queen conch, it's, like, the iconic snail of the Caribbean. It's a very beautiful shell. It's quite large. It's about 20 to 25 centimeters long, pink on the inside, and it has a lot of flesh. The animal inside has a lot of flesh. And apparently, for those who have tasted it, it's very good.
MILOSLAVICHSo it was exploited even before Columbus times. It came -- when Columbus came to the Caribbean, the Amerindians already exploited this resource in the islands. Many of these Amerindians even came from mainland in their little canoes. They traveled thousands of kilometers to these little islands where they had this huge exploitation of mollusks, of queen conchs. They exploited them so much that with the empty shells, even new islands were created. And even some very local current patterns changed because of these new obstructions in the Caribbean. So when the Amerindians themselves -- well, the Census of Marine Life project saw that the populations of the queen conch were severely depleted even before Columbus times.
MILOSLAVICHBut then after Columbus, as we all know history, the Indians themselves got depleted due to exploitation by the conquerors. So what happened then? The queen conch populations recovered until early 20th century when, again, fisherman started exploiting this resource. And, today, we have a lot a problem with this species. Some countries have measures to protect it, but some countries do not. So since it's a regional resource, it does really request -- needs regional policies to have the resource recovered.
NNAMDIRon O'Dor, talking with both Huw Griffiths and Patricia Miloslavich, it occurs to me there were 2,700 scientists from 80 countries around the world who participated in this project. How did you stay organized? How do you stay organized when you've got an undertaking of that size?
MILOSLAVICHIs that one for me or Ron? Is Ron still there? I don't know.
O'DORI'm still here Patricia, but I would say that you've taken over and become more organized than I am. So...
NNAMDIWe defer to you, Patricia.
MILOSLAVICHOkay. Well, it's -- I think everybody behaves pretty well. So the project was organized into projects on one side, and then -- there were 17 projects in total, one for history, one for future, one for the database and the rest were field projects, exploration field projects. That was one approach to the census, to be organized around projects. The other approach of the census was to be organized around national and regional committees. Because from its very beginning, the census realized -- the census steering committee realized that to really be a global endeavor, all regions should be incorporated and not all of the projects, with very few exceptions -- maybe near shore would be one exception -- could participate in all of the projects.
MILOSLAVICHSo these national and regional committees -- of 13 in total -- was the other approach to organization. Even the projects and the national regional committees had a head, which was a coordinator who was in charge of keeping all the people -- researchers, policy makers, historians, data managers, even the students who participated -- to keep all the structure organized. And then they all reported back to the census secretariat, who had, along with the steering committee, there or four meetings a year, and even had, every month, phone calls to keep everything on track.
NNAMDIHere -- oh, please, go ahead, Ron.
O'DORJust one quick comment. I think that we should actually acknowledge that the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has generously provided the money to make this project -- to hold this project together. We were able to find money from all sorts of sources for science, but The Sloan Foundation recognized that we needed a social organization, as well as just a science organization.
NNAMDIHere is Erik in Washington D.C. Erik, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERIKHi, Kojo, my question is regarding some of this marine life that is found in the deeper regions of the water and the ocean and whether there has been any attempt to bring some of these species to places such as aquariums, or wherever, where people can actually either see them or...
NNAMDIAny attempt to show these species the light of day, Ron O'Dor?
O'DORWe have -- I was actually onboard a vessel in the Arctic when we caught what we call a Dumbo octopus. It's an octopus that flaps its fins and looks like its flying like Dumbo. We actually managed to bring that octopus up from about 3,000 meters, and when -- we had it on board, and we tried to ship it to the aquarium in Monterey. But, unfortunately, it didn't make it. So it's certainly something that's enormously interesting, but it's not something that's easy.
NNAMDIIt's not without its difficulties. Erik, thank you very much for your call. Patricia, after 10 years, the census is wrapping up. Tell us a little bit about that.
MILOSLAVICHYes. We will call it "The Census of Marine Life: A Decade of Discovery." So far, there are nearly 2,700 scientific publications, several books and so forth. So to highlight this, to choose what's the most important or the most -- that will have the most impact, has been quite difficult. But the census has had a (word?) group who has been working hard on selecting the information.
NNAMDIWe'll try to provide links to that on our website online so people can know, but we're just about out of time. Patricia Miloslavich is a senior scientist with the Census of Marine Life and a professor of marine biology at the Universidad Simon Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela. Thank you for joining us. Ron O'Dor is senior scientist with the census and a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Ron, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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