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Census of Marine Life Celebrates ‘Decade of Discovery’

Fairbanks, Alaska—The Census of Marine Life, a ten-year initiative to describe the distribution and diversity of ocean life, draws to a close today with a celebration, symposium and press conference in London. At the press conference, scientists revealed the results of the census, including the discovery of new species, new patterns of biodiversity and more. Scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have played a major role in what the census calls its “decade of discovery.”

UAF scientists have led two multi-year projects as part of the census. Both projects—the Arctic Ocean Diversity project and the Natural Geography in Shore Areas project—are dedicated to explaining the biodiversity of different areas in the world’s ocean. Between them, the projects identified dozens of new species and cataloged nearshore organisms at more than 200 sites worldwide.

The Arctic Ocean Diversity project, also called ArcOD, is an international effort to identify the number and variety of marine creatures living in the Arctic. The project looks at organisms that live in arctic sea ice, the water column and on the seafloor, from microscopic plankton to fishes and birds.

Bodil Bluhm, associate professor of marine biology, Rolf Gradinger, associate professor of oceanography, and Russ Hopcroft, professor of oceanography, are leading the project.

The scientists are using historical data as well as new findings to create a broad inventory of arctic species. The project operates as an umbrella program under which independently funded arctic projects join together to compile a species database. Currently, the database contains 250,000 records. The database is available online at http://dw.sfos.uaf.edu/arcod/ and through www.iobis.org, the censuswide data portal.

“What we are also trying to do is fill in the geographic and taxonomic gaps in our knowledge of arctic species with new expeditions and improved taxonomic resolution,” said Bluhm.

During their research, the scientists discovered 71 species that Bluhm says are new to science. They say the research is particularly important because the Arctic is showing the effects of climate change.

“The Arctic Ocean is the region where the impacts of climate change are strongest expressed,” said Hopcroft. “Ongoing climate warming and reduction in sea ice makes the effort to identify the diversity of its life an urgent issue.”

An important part of the project is the distribution of knowledge to the public through educational outreach and publications. Gradinger, Bluhm, Hopcroft and the ArcOD team of nearly 100 scientists have published multiple book chapters, books and articles on arctic biodiversity.

Natural Geography in Shore Areas is a Census of Marine Life project that describes the biodiversity in the world’s coastal regions. The project is also called “NaGISA,” a Japanese word for the area where the ocean meets the shore. The effort will produce the world’s first nearshore global census.

This international project is headquartered at both UAF and Kyoto University and led by UAF scientists. The principal investigator is Katrin Iken, associate professor of marine biology and the co-principal investigator is Brenda Konar, a professor of marine biology. The project is managed by postdoctoral researcher Ann Knowlton and assisted by research technician Heloise Chenelot.

NaGISA scientists developed standardized sampling techniques that have been used by a global network of scientists at more than 240 sites along the shores of 28 countries. The sites include rocky shore areas and seagrass beds in the intertidal zone out to a depth of 20 meters.

“The advantages of a standardized protocol are that global quantitative data is comparable over large spatial scales,” said Iken. “Also, the hierarchical design allows us to analyze data from local to regional to global scales.”

The data gathered by NaGISA can be used as a baseline to determine changes in biodiversity over latitude, longitude and time. All NaGISA data has been submitted to www.iobis.org. To date, 54,666 entries have been contributed. Along with this database, many scientific and outreach publications have been produced using the NaGISA data.

NaGISA scientists say an important goal of the program has been to involve local communities in the sampling and increase coastal residents’ awareness of local marine habitat. According to Knowlton, one of the project’s greatest legacies is the continued and future use of the NaGISA sampling protocol by both K-12 and university students.

With more than 2,700 scientists from 670 institutions, census leaders say that the Census of Marine Life is one of the largest scientific collaborations ever conducted. The Census of Marine Life is primarily funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Scientists from each of the projects will present at the census finale. Although the Census of Marine Life ends today, scientists from both the ArcOD and NaGISA projects say that they will continue their efforts to explore biodiversity in the sea.

About SFOS
The UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences conducts world-class marine and fisheries research, education and outreach across Alaska, the Arctic and Antarctic. 60 faculty scientists and 150 students are engaged in building knowledge about Alaska and the world's coastal and marine ecosystems. SFOS is headquartered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and serves the state from facilities located in Seward, Juneau, Anchorage and Kodiak.

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