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Secrets Of The Seas: Jurassic Shrimp, Hairy Crabs And Giant Microbes


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Secrets of the seas: Jurassic shrimp, hairy crabs and giant microbes

Ambitious project is finding two species of fish each week unknown to science

Ian Sample, science correspondent

Monday December 11, 2006

The Guardian

An ambitious attempt to draw up a census of life beneath the waves has revealed a clutch of exotic species and a shoal of fish which is the size of Manhattan island.

Research vessels dispatched to probe the depths of the world's oceans stumbled across an ancient shrimp, previously known only from fossil records, which was thought to have become extinct 50m years ago.

Nicknamed Jurassic shrimp, the creature was spotted on a sea mount near the Philippines and rivals the discovery of the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish now known to populate the waters off South Africa and Indonesia.

Scientists aboard another research vessel looking for life in the Nazare canyon in the sea off Portugal's coast spotted giant fragile microbes which protected themselves with plate-like shells made from mineral grains.

Other finds included the hairiest crab ever documented and a vibrant community of jellyfish and other creatures lurking in some of the darkest waters known, discovered when scientists drilled a hole through 700 metres (2,300ft) of Antarctic ice and lowered a camera into the depths.

The census was launched in 2001 to map life in the most under-explored environment on earth and uses half of the world's large research vessels and submersibles. Destined to finish in 2010, the £500m project involves 1,700 scientists in 73 countries.

"By 2010 we'll have a representative picture of what lives in the oceans from top to bottom and around the world," said Ron O'Dor, senior scientist on the project. "Everywhere we go we find more life than we'd imagined. When we started there were views that as you went deeper the oceans turned into deserts and there was nothing living down there, but that certainly isn't true."

The discoveries have been coming to the surface at the rate of two species of fish unknown to science each week. And the scientists believe that they are still far from documenting all the different marine species. Advanced sonar equipment that can map oceanic areas 10,000 times larger than previously possible recently detected a shoal of eight million fish in a school the size of Manhattan off the coast of New Jersey. Images of the shoal revealed it pulsating, fragmenting and reforming as the fish moved through the water.

When the census is completed it will form a snapshot of ocean life that scientists will use as a reference to monitor the impact of the fishing industry and environmental change, such as global warming.

The ships include a German icebreaker, the Polarstern, the world's most expensive research vessel. The ship is now in Antarctic waters testing for life on a seabed that recently became exposed after a vast slab of ice broke free from the continent.

Scientists have mounted 19 other ocean expeditions this year and tagged more than 20 species, including sharks, squid, sealions and albatrosses, with tiny radio transmitters that feed back information on migration patterns and ocean currents. One bluefin tuna tagged with a transmitter stunned scientists by making three crossings of the Pacific in 600 days, covering a distance greater than the earth's circumference.

Tracking fish has revealed some uncomfortable truths for those managing fish stocks. Computer models of fish abundance have proved, in many cases, to be too simplistic and have failed to recognise that many key breeding grounds have been knocked out by over-fishing. The backlog of the freshly discovered species is gradually being put into order, short sequences of cell DNA serving as the "bar codes". So far, more than 4,000 DNA tags have been recorded in the census database.

David Farmer, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, who is involved with the census, said: "I find it hard to believe that what the census is finding is going to be more than a tiny fraction but it is surely a pioneering contribution. This is going to be immensely valuable. Not being put off by the magnitude of the task, and nevertheless pushing on and bringing it all together, is astonishing."

New wave: Emerging facts about the oceans

· The world's oceans are 70% shark free and sharks rarely colonise water below 3,000 metres (about 9,800 ft, or into the oceanic abyss). As they are concentrated quite near the surface the animals are vulnerable to being caught in nets

· Eight million fish were observed off the New Jersey coast in a shoal bigger than the area of Manhattan island

· Scientists thought Neoglyphea neocaledonica, the "Jurassic shrimp", had become extinct 50m years ago, but it was found on an underwater peak in the Coral Sea, north-east of Australia

· Sooty shearwaters can fly 43,496 miles in search of food, carving out a figure of eight around the Pacific Ocean. Electronically tracked migrations revealed that in only 200 days some birds clocked up a daily average of nearly 220 miles

· The team found a half-metre, spiny lobster off the coast of Madagascar weighing 1.8kg (3.9lb)

· Near Easter Island researchers found a creature so strange they had to classify it as being within a new biological family. The crab Kiwa hirsuta is named after its own hairiness and the Polynesian goddess of shellfish

· Temperatures around deep, hot vents can range from 2C to 407C (764F) in the space of a few centimetres. Some species such as shrimps can survive here

· The oceans contain an estimated 5m to 10m species of bacteria. The figure comes from sampling water at various locations and using DNA techniques. One litre of sea water can contain 20,000 different species of bacteria

· Less than 2% of coral reefs are in marine protected areas and are vulnerable to poaching and coral extraction

Edited by MallacootaPete
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