Mysteries of the Sea Continue to Amaze


Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life. Making Ocean Life Count. Snelgrove, P.V.R. 2010. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. 270 pp. $94.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-107-00013-1. $47.00 (paperback). ISBN 9780521165129. Text-only version downloadable from Life in the World's Oceans. Diversity, Distribution, and Abundance. McIntyre, A.D., editor. 2010. Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, U.K. 361 pp. $199.99 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-4051-9297-2. Marine Ecology. Processes, Systems, and Impacts. 2nd edition. Kaiser, K. J., M. J. Attrill, S. Jennings, D. N. Thomas, D. K. A. Barnes, A. S. Brierley, J. G. Hiddingk, H. Kaartokallio, N. V. C. Polunin, and D. G. Raffaelli. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K. 501 pp. $51.75 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-19-922702-0.

The oceans are a source of inspiration and mystery to many people, and scientists are drawn to the challenge of unravelling their unknowns. A decade of dedicated effort to study many diverse aspects of life in the oceans has led to a momentous expansion of knowledge. The Census of Marine Life was a gigantic effort, and the fruits of this labor have been impressive and are still being unveiled. The project engaged a global network of researchers, from over 80 countries, who collaborated to increase understanding of marine biological diversity—past, present, and future. In a decade of discovery, 2700 scientists identified more than 6000 potential new species and published over 2600 scientific papers ( Two books, Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life and Life in the World's Oceans—among many others and thousands of articles—nicely illustrate the vast breadth and depth of the Census of Marine Life. Many new species were discovered. For example, 90% of infaunal species (animals that live in the substrate of oceans) collected in abyssal samples were new to science, and 98% of copepod species collected in the southeastern Atlantic were previously undescribed. These two books highlight how much we still do not know about life in the oceans and promise that the oceans will continue to amaze into the foreseeable future.

The two Census of Marine Life books are aimed at different audiences. Snelgrove's Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life brings the excitement of the project's discoveries to a broad audience. It is very readable and beautifully illustrated with color pictures that highlight many previously unknown and bizarre creatures that inhabit the oceans. Maps and illustrations augment the stories of discovery, and to ensure readability, graphs are kept to a minimum and references are relegated to the end of each chapter.

In contrast, Life in the World's Oceans, edited by McIntyre and written by some 140 contributors, is aimed at a scientific audience—and perhaps also an educated and interested public. Each of the 17 chapters highlights the achievements of a different project of the Census of Marine Life and is written by experts involved in those projects. The projects cover an impressive range, from different ocean realms (e.g., Arctic, Antarctic, abyssal, continental margins) to distributions of species (focus on microbes and zooplankton), animal movements, past ocean conditions, and potential future changes to patterns of species abundance, distribution, and diversity. Thus each chapter is a fully referenced and illustrated academic summary of the discoveries and remaining unknowns. Despite an academic emphasis, the chapters are also extremely readable and contain figures, tables, pictures, and text boxes that add depth and color.

It is no surprise that the two books cover similar topics, given they both emerged from the Census of Marine Life, but they are structured in different ways. Snelgrove's book takes a more integrative approach than McIntyre's. It guides readers through the rationale for the project, the major discoveries, and the remaining unknowns and unknowables (covered above). Although Snelgrove's is a quicker read, I was drawn to McIntyre's because of its depth and breadth and because the structure makes it a handy reference guide.

The scope of the two books on the Census of Marine Life is so large that it is impossible to summarize the content here, but one topic I found particularly fascinating (likely because I know the least about it) was the importance of microbes and the still extremely limited understanding of them. Microbes comprise 90% of the total biomass in the ocean and play crucial roles—even more important than traditionally thought—in the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, iron, and many other trace elements. A scary reality is that factors such as rising seawater temperatures, acidification, and salinity changes associated with climate change will affect (and likely already have affected) microbes and their diversity, yet we have little idea how different microbial taxa may react to climate change or how global biogeochemical cycles may change in response to microbial changes (McIntyre 2010).

For the next generation of researchers to fully appreciate the advances made by the Census of Marine Life and to take that newly gained understanding to the next level, they must have a solid grounding in biology and ecology. Marine Ecology: Processes, Systems, and Impacts by Kaiser and colleagues provides a thorough, comprehensive, and accessible overview and in-depth guide to marine ecology. It includes an impressive range of graphs and figures, text boxes, and useful summaries at the beginning and end of each chapter. Particularly engaging are the book's many “current focus” text boxes, which address contemporary issues such as use of algae for carbon sequestration and biofuel production and the debate in the literature about faith-based fisheries management. I also appreciated that the authors integrate topics on the physical and chemical properties of the oceans in each chapter—to emphasize their importance to biological and ecological processes—rather than addressing them separately.

The preface of Marine Ecology: Processes, Systems, and Impacts outlines the evolution of marine ecology, explaining that the discipline has moved from exploration and description to experimental manipulation and to today's emphasis on integration and application. All three books illustrate this evolution: the importance of applying our ecological and biological knowledge to management by conservation scientists is no longer a fringe undertaking. In almost every chapter of each of the three books, the effects people are having on marine ecosystems are emphasized. The prominence of application is heartening to see in an ecology textbook because ecology used to concern itself primarily with studying relatively undisturbed environments and processes. Equally impressive is the extent of engagement by Census of Marine Life scientists in applying their findings to policy and management. For example, the organization that manages the Antarctic marine environment (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) adopted a proposal they based on a Census of Marine Life expedition to mitigate the effects of fishing on coralline assemblages (McIntyre's volume). Much of marine science used to be undertaken solely for the sake of advancing knowledge, yet today the pervasive presence and expansion of human effects on ecosystems thought to be beyond human reach emphasizes the need for a project like the Census of Marine Life. These three books are evidence that we are indeed seeing, as Kaiser and colleagues put it, a new phase in ecology.

I highly recommend all three books to those interested in marine ecosystems. Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life is a very readable and enjoyable overview of the amazing findings of ocean exploration. Life in the World's Oceans provides more depth, albeit in a more academic manner, and serves as a beautiful guide to the findings of each of the Census of Marine Life's 17 projects. Marine Ecology: Processes, Systems, and Impacts would make an excellent textbook for university-level ecology teachers eager to integrate application—management and conservation—into ecology.

All three books—each in a slightly different way—reminded me why I chose to pursue a career in marine conservation. They show that so much is unknown and fascinating creatures are yet to be discovered. They also show that human effects are present in every marine realm. The books are a reminder of the enormous current and potential future benefit of the diversity of marine life to humanity and thus of the importance of sustainable use, management, and conservation. Our limited knowledge of most marine realms emphasizes the need for the precautionary principle. We have to manage with limited knowledge in a precautionary manner because if we wait until we fully understand marine systems, we will be waiting for a long, long time.