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Marine census points to vast diversity Add to ...

Ten years ago, 2,700 scientists from around the world set out to do something no one had done: create a complete census of marine life. From lobsters to sea worms, census scientists now believe there are at least four new marine species for every one known to science. Their findings from 25 different regions around the world were published Monday in the journal PLoS ONE. The complete list of all marine species known to exist, which is expected to exceed 230,000, will be released in October. The Globe and Mail spoke with project scientists Paul Snelgrove, professor of ocean sciences at Memorial University, and Philippe Archambault, professor of marine ecology at the Université du Québec à Rimouski.

Q: Why haven't scientists tried to create a marine species census before?

Dr. Snelgrove: In the past, we have focused on the things that we harvest from the oceans. So we spent all our energies trying to know how many cod there are, how many seals there might be. But, in fact, we now know this is not a very good approach because there are so many interactions that occur between different species. Also, what drove it before was the economy. People care the most about things they can make money off of.

Dr. Archambault: A second thing is when we are on land, it's really easy to explore, but when you go into the Arctic or the deep sea it's a real challenge and some of the technology wasn't available at the time. We're getting there; it's a little bit cheaper now.

Q: How has technology affected your ability to document marine species?

Dr. Snelgrove: Our ability to collect specimens gets better and better. The technology improves, we have new molecular techniques that help, but at the same time the loss of taxonomists makes it very difficult to link the old knowledge and complete a clear view of life in the ocean.

Dr. Archambault: For example, two years ago we found a new species of worm in the St. Lawrence. There were no specialists in Canada and we had to send our samples to Mexico - the closest place in North America was Mexico to get a specialist to name the species and say yes, this is true, this is different than all the other species around the world. That's a real problem.

Q: What was the most surprising or interesting discovery in your research?

Dr. Archambault: The Arctic was relatively diverse or more diverse than we thought. We compiled 50 square metres of sediment of the sea floor in the Arctic and we found more than 1,000 species just living in the sediment of the equivalent of three Canadian kitchen floors. Can you imagine the size of the Canadian Arctic? And we've only examined a really tiny portion.

Dr. Snelgrove: Pretty much everywhere we look in the ocean, from the intertidal all the way to the deep sea, we find life - and not just any type of life, but things that scientists have never seen before. Discovery in the oceans is really not over. We still keep finding new things.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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