Blame it on the breadcrumb sponge, aka Halichondria panicea, Alcyonium manusdiaboli, Spongia compacta, Seriatula seriata and 52 other names.
The unassuming little creature, which hides under rocks and smells like exploded gunpowder, is distinguished on a global scale. It has more monikers than anything else that swims, scuttles, clings or burrows in the deep blue sea.
And therein lies the rub.
The breadcrumb sponge is not alone. Researchers announced Wednesday that scientists over the years have given multiple aliases - dozens, in some cases - to nearly a third of all species cataloged in a massive new inventory of marine life. The revelation, plus some stunning data about newly discovered critters, could muffle popular alarm that ocean life is fading because of climate change, overfishing or other causes.
“Convincing warnings about declining fish and other marine species must rest on a valid census,” said Mark Costello, a University of Auckland marine scientist in New Zealand and a leading datameister with the Census of Marine Life, a collaboration among researchers in 80 countries who intend to complete the inventory by 2010.
The census will be the ultimate who’s who of the oceans, intended for academics “investigating fisheries, invasive species, threatened species and marine ecosystems,” Mr. Costello said.
“It will eliminate the misinterpretation of names, confusion over Latin spellings, redundancies and a host of other problems that sow confusion and slow scientific progress,” he added.
Research teams are methodically sorting out the fishy designations and so far have validated the names of 122,500 species, 56,400 of which had extra aliases. The basking shark, for example, had 39 names, a single species of sperm whale had four. The same snail appeared on endangered and unendangered lists - with different names.
In two years, the group expects to have assembled about 230,000 valid names to comprise the first Census of Marine Life.
It is but a drop in the ocean bucket, though.
The consortium also announced that there are “three times as many unknown (unnamed) marine species as known, for a grand total on Earth that could surpass 1 million.”
The deep sea, the tropics and the ocean surrounding Antarctica could harbor the unknown in startling proportions. The researchers have found that “previously undescribed species” account for more than 80 percent of the specimens they capture. They predicted finding 14,000 species of plankton alone.
“The fact that every year scientists still find more than 100 new marine fish species in the sea is astonishing. While we’re looking for life on Mars, there is still so much beauty to discover at our feet,” said Ward Appeltans, a researcher with the Flanders Marine Institute in Belgium.
The fish don’t have a monopoly on humanity’s zeal to catalog things, however.
The world’s largest land-based census of wildlife, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, began June 11 in Namibia. The first 30,000 pages of a massive online Encyclopedia of Life, tracking close to 2 million species, were released in February.
Funded by a $10 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the project is a collaboration among Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, the Field Museum of Chicago and 29 other institutions.