In our quest to discover alien life forms, humans have looked deep into space, sent landers to Mars. and launched probes into the outer reaches of the solar system. But marine biologists discover new life forms here on Earth all the time, many of them truly bizarre and as alien to terrestrial life as anything you'll find in a scifi movie. That's why the Census of Marine Life is undertaking an amazing long-term project to catalog every single one of them and eventually make the information accessible to all of us.
Making a list of marine species might not seem like a big deal, but taxonomists face some daunting problems. For one thing, some species have dozens of names, nicknames and even "official" Latin names dating back centuries. The Census of Marine Life is sorting through all of them and figuring out which species are which, assigning them scientific names, and noting all of their aliases. To make matters worse, researchers are constantly finding new species, sometimes hundreds at a time. It can take years for a new find to be published because of the taxonomic chaos.
The Census is working with the World Register of Marine Species to clear all this up. They currently have over 120,000 validated names, and expect to top 200,000 by the end of this year. What's truly astonishing is their estimate for the total marine species on Earth, discovered and undiscovered: over 1 million. At the current rate of progress, it would take over 500 years to catalog all of them. As more and more species are threatened by pollution and climate change, it becomes even more important to identify them.
Ultimately, the Census of Marine Life catalog will be used to build the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). This information portal will have photographs, distribution info and a ton of other data on each species, all easily accessible and updatable. Census data will also be contributed to the Encyclopedia of Life and the Species2000 project, which will create a similar catalog for every single species on our planet - animal, plant, fungi...everything. Image by: NOAA.