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A CENSUS of the world’s oceans has made a host of new discoveries, stretching the frontiers of mankind’s marine knowledge.

About 150 breeds of fish were among 500 new marine species, including furry crabs, found in the seas this year.

An international team of scientists also discovered that species adapted to life at the hottest sea-floor vent – which is able to instantly melt lead – and a school of fish the size of Manhattan.

About 2,000 researchers contributed to the 80-nation “Census of Marine Life”. A total of 20 species, from sharks and sea lions to albatrosses, were equipped with satellite tags, while sonar equipment swept the seas for unusual water disturbances, potentially indicating a new phenomenon. Robotic cameras were also used.

Fred Grassle, chairman of the census’s scientific steering committee, said: “Each census reveals new marvels of the ocean and it is increasingly clear that many more discoveries await marine explorers.”

Now in its sixth year, the census is funded by governments, the United Nations, business and charity foundations.

MOST ABUNDANT

THE sighting of eight million fish swarming in a school the size of Manhattan qualified as the most abundant find in the census.

Fish counters making observations off the New Jersey coast used focused sound scans to examine oceanic areas 10,000 times larger than had been previously possible. The scan updates instantaneously, revealing the movements of the island-sized swarms.

On a practical level, the census identifies threatened species and important breeding areas, helping fisheries authorities develop effective strategies for the sustainable management of marine resources. New pharmaceuticals and industrial compounds are among the potential spin-offs of the new species found.

FARTHEST

TRACKING tagged sooty shearwaters by satellite, census researchers mapped the small birds’ 40,000-mile journey searching for food in a giant figure of eight over the Pacific Ocean, from New Zealand via Polynesia to Japan, Alaska and California and back.

Making the longest migration ever recorded electronically in only 200 days, the charcoal grey birds averaged a surprising 350km daily.

In some cases, a breeding pair made the entire journey together.

The birds spend 90 per cent of their lives at sea and travel this distance annually in search of food.

They are among the most numerous seabirds with a population of around 20 million. However, they are in decline in their natural habitats in New Zealand and the eastern North Pacific.

HOTTEST

THE hottest thermal vent was discovered 3km below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. It is belching out fluids at an unprecedented 407C – a temperature which can easily melt lead.

Scientists want to study the deep-sea eco-system of plants and animals living in a “halo” around the vent, to discover how, surrounded by near-freezing water, their chemistry allows them to withstand heat pulses that approach boiling point – up to 80C.

Shrimps, mussels and clams were seen on the walls of the vent chimney.

All somehow tolerate an environment of extreme temperature changes within a few centimetres and high concentrations of heavy metals from the vent fluids.

NEW SPECIES

“SLOAN the squid”, a new species capable of chewing its own food, was found by deep-sea investigators in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Sloan (Promachoteuthis sloani) was among 80,000 organisms – covering 354 families, genera and species – found. It has become the reference specimen for the new species.

Although collection easily damages the soft cephalopods’ heads, the hard beaks are unique to each species, including that of the new squid, which scientists say looks quite capable of chewing its food.

Discovered by a Norwegian team taking part in the census, Sloan was named after one of the expedition’s sponsors, Albert Sloan. It was captured as part of a giant trawl and then released back into the sea.

RICHEST

THE richest find in terms of biodiversity was 20,000 forms of bacteria in a single litre of sea water.

Microbe hunters took samples from the Atlantic and Pacific, including from an eruptive fissure 1,500 metres deep on a seamount in the Pacific.

DNA studies showed most of the different kinds of bacteria were unknown and likely to be rare globally.

The rich biodiversity invites speculation about what rare species contribute to their biospheres and an estimate that the kinds of bacteria in the oceans exceed five to ten million. Researchers also began assembling the best video of protists – mostly microscopic organisms that are neither animals, plants, or fungi – and to pioneer optical and genetic techniques to increase their knowledge.

DEEPEST

THE deepest sampling in the census took place 5km below the surface of the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic.

Experts from 14 nations caught rare, but diverse, zooplankton living in the ocean’s deepest depths, in a sophisticated net called the Mocness.

Some of these menacing-looking animals such as the amphipod – a small prawn-like crustacean – were the supposed inspiration for the 1986 science-fiction horror movie Alien, starring Sigourney Weaver.

Using a unique trawl configuration that was capable of filtering large volumes of water, the scientists collected more than 500 species – including 12 likely new species – eating each other at the great depths or drifting downwards like snow from above.

DARKEST

CENSUS-takers in the Southern Ocean discovered a unique and astonishing community of marine life shrouded beneath 700m of ice, about 200km from open water.

During three lengthy cruises, sampling yielded more new than familiar species.

Among the scores of species found was a rare jellyfish, possibly cosmetirella davisi, which was filmed swimming with its tentacles raised.

The scientists used technology including a remotely operated underwater vehicle, a sea-floor camera platform and under-ice cameras to gather information.

Data about these previously inaccessible species will allow scientists to measure the impact of climate change and human disturbance.

OLDEST

THE oldest creature found by census seamount researchers was a shrimp believed to have become extinct around 50 million years ago.

The female creature was found alive and well 400 metres under the sea on an underwater peak during an expedition to the Chesterfield Islands, north-west of New Caledonia.

Neoglyphea neocaledonica was nicknamed “Jurassic shrimp” by its discoverers. It is about 5in long and has been described as “halfway between a shrimp and a mud lobster”.

It has huge eyes, reddish spots and a thick-set body. The eyes suggest that light plays a significant role in its life.

French scientists said the discovery rivals the find of the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish previously known only through fossils.

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