WASHINGTON – Marine scientists say they have discovered 178 new species of fish and hundreds more new species of plants and other animals in the past year, raising the number of life-forms found in the world's oceans to about 230,000.
Discoveries being made public Tuesday include a gold-speckled and red-striped goby fish (search), found in Guam's waters, that somehow lives in partnership with a snapping shrimp at its tail. While the goby stands sentinel, the shrimps digs a burrow that both use for shelter.
Another surprise for biologists was a colony of rhodoliths (search), a coral-like marine algae, found in Prince William Sound in Alaska. The hard, red plants, which resemble toy jacks, roll like tumbleweeds in the beds used as nurseries by shrimp and scallops.
Those in charge of the Census of Marine Life (search), now four years into a planned 10-year count, say the rate of discovery shows no sign of slowing, even in European and other waters heavily studied in the past.
Some 1,000 scientists in 70 countries are now participating, up from 300 scientists in 53 countries just a year earlier.
"In general, the smaller the animals are in the ocean, the more poorly known they are," J. Frederick Grassle, chairman of the project's scientific steering committee and director of Rutgers University's Institute of Marine & Coastal Sciences, said Monday.
This is the second consecutive year in which scientists have reported findings since the project began in May 2000. The part of the census dealing with microbes, the smallest organisms, is just starting.
Once that part is done, scientists believe they will find that the oceans extending across 70 percent of the earth's surface hold 20,000 species of fish and up to 1.98 million species of animals and plants, many of them small, basic life-forms like worms and jellyfish.
Studying the genomes, or genetic codes, of the species will "lead to the past history, the past evolution of life in the oceans, which goes back way before the fossil record three-and-a-half billion years," Grassle said.
So far, scientists have described 15,482 marine fish species, up from 15,304 a year ago. The number of animals and plants is up to about 214,500, several hundred more than last year, but scientists say they do not have an exact number for that.
That is because the scientists trying to share data worldwide are "also discovering redundancy in the records of what exists," said Ronald O'Dor, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University (search) in Canada and the project's chief scientist. "Until you bring all the data together into one place, you don't realize that two different people in two different countries have given different names to the same thing."
So far, about $125 million has been spent on the census. Its price tag eventually is expected to reach $1 billion, most of it from participating governments. The idea for the census grew from scientists' concerns that human population growth might permanently alter the oceans' diverse life-forms, as the National Academy of Sciences (search) reported in 1995.