Scientists around the world take on a grand challenge to dramatize the need for more marine research
J. Frederick Grassle believes in the power of numbers. A marine biologist at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, Grassle has spent years advocating more research on life in the world's oceans. During a conversation a few years ago with Jesse Ausubel, a program officer with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City, the pair hit upon a promising idea for igniting the public's passion for marine research: What about counting all the living creatures in the vast deep?
Last week the idea, a "Census of Marine Life," took a big step toward reality when eight research groups were awarded $3.7 million to develop model Internet atlases that display everything from the distribution of squids to the DNA sequences of tiny zooplankton. The projects, administered by the Washington, D.C.-based National Oceanographic Partnership Program, kick off what could become a 10-year, billion-dollar effort to use everything from dip nets to airborne lasers to enumerate and map marine life. "The census is driven by three questions," says Ausubel: "What did, what does, and what will live in the ocean?"
Answering the trio of questions, he admits, is a "grand challenge." Although researchers have described some 15,000 kinds of marine fish, for instance, they estimate that at least 5000 more species, along with countless crustaceans, shellfish, and worms, have eluded detection. And often the numbers and distribution of even known species are sketchy.
The census aims to reduce such uncertainty by making existing data more accessible and useful to researchers, and by creating computerized libraries that can accommodate a flood of new numbers from studies of selected ocean patches. By applying new technologies for identifying marine species from afar, census planners also hope to give conservationists and regulators better tools to estimate marine populations, and provide...
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