Census of Marine Life

The Census of Marine Life was a 10-year, US $650 million scientific initiative, involving a global network of researchers in more than 80 nations, engaged to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the oceans. The world's first comprehensive Census of Marine Life — past, present, and future — was released in 2010 in London.[1] Initially supported by funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the project was successful in generating many times that initial investment in additional support and substantially increased the baselines of knowledge in often underexplored ocean realms, as well as engaging over 2,700 different researchers for the first time in a global collaborative community united in a common goal, and has been described as "one of the largest scientific collaborations ever conducted".

Census of Marine Life
Census Of Marine Life Logo
PurposeOceanography research

Project history

According to Jesse Ausubel, Senior Research Associate of the Program for the Human Environment of Rockefeller University and science advisor to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the idea for a "Census of Marine Life" originated in conversations between himself and Dr. J. Frederick Grassle, an oceanographer and benthic ecology professor at Rutgers University, in 1996.[2] Grassle had been urged to talk with Ausubel by former colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and was at that time unaware that Ausubel was also a program manager at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, funders of a number of other large scale "public good" science-based projects such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.[3] Ausubel was instrumental in persuading the Foundation to fund a series of "feasibility workshops" over the period 1997-1998 into how the project might be conducted,[4] one result of these workshops being the broadening of the initial concept from a "Census of the Fishes" into a comprehensive "Census of Marine Life".[5] Results from these workshops, plus associated invited contributions, formed the basis of a special issue of Oceanography magazine in 1999;[6] later that year, a workshop in Washington, D.C. addressed the formation of an Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) which would serve to collate existing knowledge about the distribution of organisms in the ocean and form the information management component of the Census.[7]

The Census began in a formal sense with the announcement in May 2000 of eight grants totaling about 4 million US$ to create OBIS, as reported in Science magazine, 2 June.[8][9] Meanwhile, an International Scientific Steering Committee was formed in 1999, which by 2001 envisaged "about half a dozen pilot [field] programs" for the period 2002-2004 which, along with OBIS and another project called "History of Marine Animal Populations" (HMAP), would provide the initial activities of the Census, to be followed by an additional series of field programs in 2005-2007, culminating in an analysis and integration phase in 2008-2010.[9] During the operation of the Census, an additional non-field project was added, the Future of Marine Animal Populations (FMAP), which concentrated on forecasting the future of life in the oceans using modeling and simulation tools.

As a general method of working, project proposals would be debated within the Scientific Steering Committee and, if recommended for funding, a formal submission would be made to the Sloan Foundation for funding to support the Principal Investigators (PIs) and a Project Coordinator, meetings of project participants, and additional Synthesis and Education and Outreach activities.[10] Since Sloan Foundation approval was dependent on promises of contributions from additional sources, and projects were encouraged to bring additional resources on board during their operation, the Foundation funds committed were effectively leveraged many times to provide a much more substantial program than would otherwise have been possible. As core infrastructure components, the Foundation also supported the Census' International Scientific Steering Committee and Secretariat, the U.S. National Committee, and an Education and Outreach Network to lift the project's visibility and engage other nations and organizations.[11] The Census was ultimately estimated to have cost US $650 million, of which the Sloan Foundation contributed US $75 million with the remainder supplied by a large number of participating institutions, countries, and national and international organizations in the form of both direct and in-kind contributions.[1][a]

In a retrospective review in 2011, David Penman and co-authors wrote:

"The Census had its inception in a visionary leader (Grassle) who was able to convince a small group of colleagues of the need for such a project and find a like-minded individual (Ausubel) who saw the opportunity for the Sloan Foundation to take a key role in bring the Census to fruition. This was not leadership that sought out problems to solve – it identified an issue that could not be addressed through conventional national funding mechanisms and could only be approached through a large-scale collaborative endeavour. The Sloan Foundation saw the opportunity to facilitate new science that would also contribute knowledge for wide societal benefit."[12]

Census program

The Census consisted of three major component themes organized around the questions:

  1. What has lived in the oceans?
  2. What does live in the oceans?
  3. What will live in the oceans?

The largest component of the Census involved investigating what currently lives in the world's oceans through 14 field projects. Each sampled the biota in one of six realms of the global oceans using a range of technologies. These projects were as follows:[13]

These field projects were complemented by the three non-field Census projects, namely HMAP, FMAP and OBIS. A series of National and Regional Implementation Committees (NRICs) was also established to progress the involvement of particular countries and regions in Census activities. Towards the end of the project, additional teams were created for education and outreach, and mapping and vizualization products, while a "synthesis" group coordinated the final outcomes (publications, etc.).


During its lifespan, the Census involved some 2,700 scientists from more 80 countries who spent 9,000 days at sea participating in more than 540 census-badged expeditions,[14] as well as uncounted nearshore sampling events. In addition to many thousands of records of previously known species, Census scientists found more than 6,000 marine species potentially new to science and had completed formal descriptions of 1,200 of them up to 2010. Census scientists visited many parts of the global ocean to learn more about species ranging in size from the blue whale to minute zooplankton and microbes (bacteria and viruses); sampled from the world's coldest regions to the warm tropics, from deep-sea hydrothermal vents to coastal ecosystems; tracked the movements of fish and interrogated historical records to learn what the ocean used to be like before the influence of humans; and employed forecasting methods to predict what may happen to ocean life in the future. One of the largest scientific collaborations ever conducted, by 2011 the Census had produced over 3,100 scientific papers and many thousands of other information products, with over 30 million species distribution records freely available via OBIS.[15]

As well as its tangible scientific legacy, the Census was instrumental in building a global community of researchers, many of whom had never collaborated before until they were brought together under the auspices of the Census, and a new approach to collaborative research. As Ian Poiner, outgoing chair of the Census has said, "The Census changed our views on how things could be done. We shared our problems and we shared our solutions."[16] In their 2011 review of the Census commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, David Penman and co-authors wrote: "[Prior to the Census there was] A fragmented research community: Marine biodiversity researchers had few active coordinated national and international research programs and taxonomic research in particular was underfunded and scattered in disparate organizations... [there was] No culture of collaboration and data sharing: Unlike the oceanographic community, marine biology was characterized by small research projects leading to publications but there was little experience or willingness to openly collaborate and share data... [and in addition there was] No recognized open-access data portal for marine biodiversity data: Unlike the "physical science" oceanographic community, there was no recognized data depository or common standards for sharing marine biodiversity data."[17]

As summarizing remarks, Penman et al., writing in 2011, stated:

"The Census, by any statistical measure, was a great success. The large number of scientific papers published and still to be published by Census participants, alone, would be sufficient. Instead the Census has achieved truly global science in biology. It did not profess to provide a complete Census of life in the ocean in 2010 but it did substantially increase the baselines of knowledge in often underexplored ocean realms. From this knowledge base future research and surveys will add more data that can be shared through web-based services such as OBIS. From this we may be able to derive estimates of population diversity, distribution and abundance for selected groups of organisms or regions and a future compilation of such data will show how far our knowledge has moved from 2010... Undoubtedly much research on marine biodiversity would have been carried out over the last decade without the Census. But it would have lacked the global reach and the access to data and technologies that made the Census unique."[18]

In 2011, the Census Steering Committee received the International Cosmos Prize in recognition of its decade of international ocean research spanning multiple scientific disciplines.[19]


The Census partnered with the Encyclopedia of Life in creating pages for marine species, and supplied marine material for DNA barcoding in the Barcode of Life project. Google and Census of Marine Life partnered on Google Earth 5.0. Ocean in Google Earth contains a layer devoted to the Census of Marine Life that allows users to follow scientists from the Census on expeditions and see marine life and features found during the Census.[20] A partnership with the French film company Galatée Films resulted in the production of the film Oceans which was released in 2009, featuring film of over 200 species at more than 50 global locations.[21]

See also


  1. ^ The Census was the largest, but not the only commitment of Sloan funds to "big science" in that decade; from information on its website https://www.sloan.org, the Foundation also provided US $11.5 million to the Barcode of Life project, an initial grant of $2.5 million to the Encyclopedia of Life, and $18 million to the ethics of Synthetic Biology. Funding to the Census may be eventually surpassed by that to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (US $60 million to 2017, refer http://www.sciencephilanthropyalliance.org/science-philanthropy-success-story-the-sloan-foundations-25-year-partnership-with-the-sloan-digital-sky-survey/), however that program has existed over a considerably longer period (1992-current).


  1. ^ a b "2010 Census of Marine Life News Release, 23 September 2010" (PDF). coml.org. 23 September 2010. Retrieved 2018-07-25.
  2. ^ Entwisle, Amy. 2011. "What Lies Beneath" Interview with Jesse Ausubel, Co-Founder, Census of Marine Life. Imagine Magazine, Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, January 2011; retrieved from phe.rockefeller.edu website (July 25 2018)
  3. ^ Grassle, Fred. 2010. Introduction. Pp. ix-xi in McIntyre, Alistair D. (editor). Life in the World's Oceans: Diversity, Distribution, and Abundance. chapter available at http://comlmaps.org/mcintyre/forward/introduction-fred-grassel
  4. ^ Census of Marine Life: Feasibility workshops. Census of Marine Life website (retrieved 25 July 2018)
  5. ^ Ausubel, Jesse H. 1999. "The Census of the Fishes: An Update." Draft document available from Census of Marine Life website (retrieved 25 July 2018)
  6. ^ Oceanography Vol. 12, No. 3, Special Issue: Census of Marine Life
  7. ^ Grassle, J.F. 2000. The Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS): an on-line, worldwide atlas for accessing, modeling and mapping marine biological data in a multidimensional geographic context. Oceanography 13(3), pp. 5-7.
  8. ^ Malakoff, David. 2000. "Grants Kick Off Ambitious Count of All Ocean Life." Science, vol. 288, no. 5471, p. 1575.
  9. ^ a b Ausubel, Jesse H. 2001. "The Census of Marine Life: progress and prospects." Fisheries Volume 26(7): 33-36.
  10. ^ Penman et al., page 21.
  11. ^ The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation: Completed programs: Census of Marine Life. Retrieved 26 July 2018.
  12. ^ Penman et al., pages 16-17.
  13. ^ Highlights..., rear cover listing
  14. ^ Highlights..., p.3
  15. ^ Penman et al., pages vii, ix.
  16. ^ Penman et al., 2011, page iii.
  17. ^ Penman et al., 2011, page 1.
  18. ^ Penman et al., 2011, pages 60-61.
  19. ^ Expo '90 Foundation: International Cosmos Prize: The Prizewinner 2011
  20. ^ Jha, Alok (2009-02-02). "Google Earth adds insight into Earth's oceans | Environment | guardian.co.uk". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2009-03-23.
  21. ^ Snelgrove, pages 76-77.


Further reading

  • McIntyre, Alasdair D. (editor). 2010. Life in the World’s Oceans: Diversity, Distribution, and Abundance. Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 384 pp. - A summary of findings and discoveries by the 17 Census projects Publisher's information
  • Knowlton, Nancy. 2010. Citizens of the Sea: Wondrous Creatures from the Census of Marine Life. National Geographic, 216 pp. - Portraits of about 100 species Publisher's information

External links

2000 in science

The year 2000 in science and technology involved some significant events.

Census of Coral Reefs

The Census of Coral Reefs (CReefs) is a field project of the Census of Marine Life that surveys the biodiversity of coral reef ecosystems internationally. The project works to study what species live in coral reef ecosystems, to develop standardized protocols for studying coral reef ecosystems, and to increase access to and exchange of information about coral reefs scattered throughout the globe. The CReefs project uses the implementation of autonomous reef-monitoring structures (ARMS) to study the species that inhabit coral reefs. These structures are placed on the sea floor in areas where coral reefs exist, where they are left for one year. At the end of the year, the ARMvS is pulled to the surface, along with the species which have inhabited it, for analysis. Coral reefs are thought to be the most organically different of all marine ecosystems. Major declines in key reef ecosystems suggest a decline in reef population throughout the world due to environmental stresses. The vulnerability of coral reef ecosystems is expected to increase significantly in response to climate change. The reefs are also being threatened by induced coral bleaching, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and changing storm tracks. Reef biodiversity could be in danger of being lost before it is even documented, and researchers will be left with a limited and poor understanding of these complex ecosystems.

In an attempt to enhance global understanding of reef biodiversity, the goals of the CReefs Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems were to conduct a diverse global census of coral reef ecosystems. And increase access to and exchange of coral reef data throughout the world. Because coral reefs are the most diverse and among the most threatened of all marine ecosystems, there is great justification to learn more about them.

Census of Marine Zooplankton

The Census of Marine Zooplankton is a field project of the Census of Marine Life that has aimed to produce a global assessment of the species diversity, biomass, biogeographic distribution, and genetic diversity of more than 7,000 described species of zooplankton that drift the ocean currents throughout their lives. CMarZ focuses on the deep sea, under-sampled regions, and biodiversity hotspots. Technology plays a great role in CMarZ's research, including the use of integrated morphological and molecular sampling through DNA Barcoding. CMarZ makes its datasets available via the CMarZ Database.


Dinochelus ausubeli is a small deep sea lobster discovered in 2007 in the Philippines during the Census of Marine Life and described in 2010 in the new genus Dinochelus. Its two claws are very different in size, are elongated, and bear many long teeth on the inner surface.

Fish measurement

Fish measurement is the measuring of the length of individual fish and of various parts of their anatomy. These data are used in many areas of ichthyology, including taxonomy and fisheries biology.

Future of Marine Animal Populations

The Future of Marine Animal Populations (FMAP) project was one of the core projects of the international Census of Marine Life (2000–2010). FMAP's mission was to describe and synthesize globally changing patterns of species abundance, distribution, and diversity, and to model the effects of fishing, climate change and other key variables on those patterns. This work was done across ocean realms and with an emphasis on understanding past changes and predicting future scenarios.

Global Census of Marine Life on Seamounts

Global Census of Marine Life on Seamounts (commonly CenSeam) is a global scientific initiative, launched in 2005, that is designed to expand the knowledge base of marine life at seamounts. Seamounts are underwater mountains, not necessarily volcanic in origin, which often form subsurface archipelagoes and are found throughout the world's ocean basins, with almost half in the Pacific. There are estimated to be as many as 100,000 seamounts at least one kilometer in height, and more if lower rises are included. However, they have not been explored very much—in fact, only about half of one percent have been sampled—and almost every expedition to a seamount discovers new species and new information. There is evidence that seamounts can host concentrations of biologic diversity, each with its own unique local ecosystem; they seem to affect oceanic currents, resulting among other things in local concentration of plankton which in turn attracts species that graze on it, and indeed are probably a significant overall factor in biogeography of the oceans. They also may serve as way stations in the migration of whales and other pelagic species. Despite being poorly studied, they are heavily targeted by commercial fishing, including dredging. In addition they are of interest to potential seabed mining.The overall goal of CenSeam is "to determine the role of seamounts in the biogeography, biodiversity, productivity, and evolution of marine organisms, and to evaluate the effects of human exploitation on seamounts." To this effect, the group organizes and contributes to various research efforts about seamount biodiversity. Specifically, the project aims to act as a standardized scaffold for future studies and samplings, citing inefficiency and incompatibility between individual research efforts in the past. To give a scale of their mission, there are an estimated 100,000 seamounts in the ocean, but only 350 of them have been sampled, and only about 100 sampled thoroughly. Although sampling all 100,000 seamounts is infeasible, major seamounts can be sampled in such a way.CenSeam is a subdivision of the Census of Marine Life program. Organisationally, the components of CenSeam consist of a secretariat (Malcolm Clark, Mireille Consalvey, Ashley Rowden and Karen Stocks) which is hosted by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in Wellington, New Zealand; an international steering committee; a taxonomic advisory panel; and two working groups, Data Analysis and Standardisation.In 2008 CenSeam began collaborating with the International Seabed Authority to study effects of seabed mining on seamount ecosystems.

International Census of Marine Microbes

The International Census of Marine Microbes is a field project of the Census of Marine Life that inventories microbial diversity by cataloging all known diversity of single-cell

organisms including bacteria, Archaea, Protista, and associated viruses, exploring and discovering unknown microbial diversity, and placing that knowledge into ecological and evolutionary contexts.The ICoMM program, led by Mitchell Sogin, has discovered that marine microbial diversity is some 10 to 100 times more than expected, and the vast majority are previously unknown, low abundance organisms thought to play an important role in the oceans.

J. Frederick Grassle

John Frederick Matthews Grassle (July 14, 1939 – July 6, 2018) was an American marine biologist, oceanographer, professor, and distinguished research scientist, notable for early work on the communities associated with deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and for his involvement in the creation of the Census of Marine Life and the first integration of marine biological data on a global scale, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System.

Louise Allcock

Louise Allcock is a British researcher, best known for her work on ecology and evolution of the cephalopods of the Southern Ocean and deep sea. She is the editor of the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Mid-Atlantic Ridge Ecosystem Project

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge Ecosystem Project MAR-ECO is an international research project in which scientists from 16 nations take part. Norway, represented by the Institute of Marine Research and the University of Bergen, co-ordinates the project which will enhance our understanding of occurrence, distribution and ecology of animals and animal communities along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between Iceland and the Azores. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is the volcanic mountain range in the middle of the ocean, marking the spreading zone between the Eurasian and American continental plates. New ocean floor is constantly being formed, and Iceland and the Azores are volcanic islands created when the mid-ocean ridge breaks the sea surface. The groups of animals to be studied are fishes, crustaceans, cephalopods (squids) and a wide range of gelatinous animals (e.g. jellyfish) living either near the seabed or in midwater above the ridge.

The research programme Census of Marine Life seriously addresses this situation and challenges marine biologists to utilize the most advanced technology to achieve true new information in areas of the ocean that were poorly studied previously. The project MAR-ECO, an element of the Census of Marine Life, rises to the challenge and investigates the diverse animal life along the vast underwater mountain chains of the open ocean.

Nancy Knowlton

Nancy Knowlton is a coral reef biologist and is the Smithsonian Institution’s Sant Chair for Marine Science.

Ocean Biogeographic Information System

The Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) is a web-based access point to information about the distribution and abundance of living species in the ocean. It was developed as the information management component of the ten year Census of Marine Life (CoML) (2001-2010), but is not limited to CoML-derived data, and aims to provide an integrated view of all marine biodiversity data that may be made available to it on an open access basis by respective data custodians. According to its web site as at July 2018, OBIS "is a global open-access data and information clearing-house on marine biodiversity for science, conservation and sustainable development." 8 specific objectives are listed in the OBIS site, of which the leading item is to "Provide [the] world's largest scientific knowledge base on the diversity, distribution and abundance of all marine organisms in an integrated and standardized format".

Oceans (film)

Oceans (French: Océans) is a 2009 French nature documentary film directed, produced, co-written, and narrated by Jacques Perrin, with Jacques Cluzaud as co-director. The film, produced in association with the Census of Marine Life, explores the marine species of Earth's five oceans and reflects on the negative aspects of human activity on the environment, with Perrin (Pierce Brosnan in English) providing narration.Budgeted at around $80 million, it was filmed in over 50 different places and took four years to film. In North America, the film was distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures under their Disneynature label, who cut 20 minutes mostly depicting violent massacres of sea animals (recreated through visual effects) in order to aim it at a younger audience.


TOPP or topp may refer to:

Topp (surname)

Tagging of Pacific Predators, a project by Census of Marine Life

The OpenMS Proteomics Pipeline, a set of computational tools to solve HPLC-MS data pipeline analysis problem

ToppGirl, a Norwegian magazine formerly known as Topp

Tagging of Pacific Predators

Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) began in 2000 as one of many projects formed by Census of Marine Life, an organization whose goal is to help understand and explain the diversity and abundances of the ocean in the past, present, and future. After they were formed, TOPP began by building a coalition of researchers from all over the world to find and study predators of the Pacific Ocean. Since then, they have satellite-tagged 22 different species and more than 2,000 animals. These animals include elephant seals, great white sharks, leatherback turtles, squid, albatrosses, and more.Through the efforts of TOPP, information never before accessed by humans was now available, such as migration routes and ecosystems, but from the animals', rather than human, aspects. It also became possible to learn about the ocean itself through use of the animals, because they can go where humans cannot. We learn through their everyday actions, and through these data, researchers have been able to determine better ways of protecting endangered species, such as the leatherback turtle.The tagging research is ongoing, but the TOPP program itself ended in 2010.


The family Thaumastochelidae contains five known species of deep-sea lobsters, three in the genus Thaumastocheles, and two in the genus Thaumastochelopsis. The fifth species was discovered in the ten–year Census of Marine Life. These creatures are distinguished from other clawed lobsters by their blindness (an adaptation to deep-sea life), and by their single elongated, spiny chela.The family Thaumastochelidae is now more usually subsumed into the lobster family Nephropidae.The five species are as follows:


Thaumastocheles dochmiodon Chan & de Saint Laurent, 1999 is found in the Timor Sea.

Thaumastocheles japonicus Calman, 1913, the "Pacific pincer lobster", is endemic to the Sea of Japan.

Thaumastocheles zaleucus Thomson, 1873, the "Atlantic pincer lobster" or "Atlantic deep-sea lobster", is endemic to the Caribbean region.


Thaumastochelopsis brucei Ahyong, Chu & Chan, 2007 lives in the Coral Sea.

Thaumastochelopsis wardi Bruce, 1988, the "Australian pincer lobster", lives in the Coral Sea.


Vulcanocalliax arutyunovi is a species of Thalassinidea (a ghost shrimp or mud lobster) found on a mud volcano in the Gulf of Cádiz between Spain and Morocco. It was discovered during the Census of Marine Life, and is so distinct from its closest relatives that it has been placed in a new subfamily, the Vulcanocallianacinae. The species is unusually large for a ghost shrimp, but despite that appears to brood only a single embryo. The species is named after the volcano on which it was discovered, Captain Arutyunov.

World Register of Marine Species

The World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) is a taxonomic database that aims to provide an authoritative and comprehensive list of names of marine organisms.

Aquatic ecosystems

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