Decade of Discovery


After 540 expeditions conducted by 2,700 scientists from 80 nations, the 10-year Census of Marine Life (CoML) came to a close on Oct. 4 in London at a concluding event with more than 300 scientists.

The census, which started in 2000 with the ambitious aim to fill in broad gaps of knowledge about ocean organisms and their habitats, concluded its decade of discovery by identifying, describing, and organizing 120,000 species in a global marine life database. Though scientists are expected to be the chief users of the database, its contents will be accessible by anyone with a web browser.


The $650 million census describes the database as an “unprecedented picture of the diversity, distribution, and abundance of all kinds of marine life in Planet Ocean—from microbes to whales, from the icy poles to the warm tropics, from tidal near shores to the deepest dark depths.”

Several scientists affiliated with Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego contributed to the census:

Scripps biological oceanographer Lisa Levin provided expertise to Census of Marine Life projects in the deep sea, which include some of the largest ecosystems on Earth.

Serving on international field expeditions as well as steering committees for the census’ “Continental Margin Ecosystems” and “Chemosynthetic Ecosystems Science” (ChEss) projects, Levin’s CoML expeditions included a 2006 deep-sea voyage that revealed for the first time the bizarre communities living around methane seeps off New Zealand’s east coast.


A consensus has emerged among census scientists, said Levin, that the oceans have more species, they are more sensitive to threats, and there is more human impact than they expected.

Levin said the census accomplished its goal of collecting and synthesizing information that will serve as a baseline for evaluating future changes, such as those related to climate change. The project also is creating knowledge about diversity patterns to identify the next generation of scientific questions.

Earlier this year Levin was aboard a census ChEss field expedition led by Scripps student Andrew Thurber that discovered new aspects of the deep sea biological communities off Chile. (The team was conducting research off the Chilean coast aboard Scripps research vessel Melville when one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history took place. )

“The census put the question out there about how many species are in the ocean to identify major gaps in biodiversity knowledge and to raise public awareness,” said Levin. “Public awareness is fundamental to proper stewardship of the oceans.”

Nancy Knowlton began working on the census while she was a professor at Scripps and founding director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. She was a lead principal investigator of CoML’s “Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems” project, an effort to enhance a global understanding of the biodiversity of coral reefs, regarded as the world’s most biologically diverse and complex marine systems.

“We laid the groundwork for a global biodiversity network and in the process found out that there are almost as many species of crabs in six square meters of coral reef as there are in all of Europe’s seas,” said Knowlton.


In September, Knowlton, now an adjunct professor at Scripps and a senior scientist and Sant Chair in Marine Science at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, published an entire popular book devoted to celebrating the diversity of ocean life called Citizens of the Sea: Wondrous Creatures from the Census of Marine Life.

Karen Stocks, a biological oceanographer and deep-sea ecologist with the San Diego Supercomputer Center, developed an online database to help characterize marine organisms living at underwater mountains called seamounts. Stocks has worked at Scripps as a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer. Her database helps support CenSeam, or the “Census of Marine Life on Seamounts.”

“By uniting the global seamount research community, CenSeam has been able to explore unknown regions, discovered new species, and document how humans are impacting these systems,” said Stocks, one of the co-leads of the CenSeam project.


—Mario C. Aguilera


Related links:

Census of Marine Life:

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.