World Ocean Census - Extract 20 - The name game

13 June 2010

"New species aren’t really new, they are just new to us. These creatures have been out there for millions of years and we are just now fortunate enough to find them and have the technology to examine them."
– Steven Haddock, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, member of the Census of Marine Zooplankton Steering Committee

Census researchers are discovering new species at a much faster rate than they can be described. Since fieldwork began in 2003, Census of Marine Life scientists have discovered more than 5,300 species that are potentially new to science, ranging in size from 1-millimeter-long zooplankton to a giant Madagascar lobster weighing 4 kilograms (9 pounds). Between 2003 and 2008, however, only 110 of these creatures underwent the rigorous scientific review process required for official designation as a new species. This process can – and often does – take years.

The challenge for Census scientists and their colleagues worldwide is that before they can begin to seek answers to the many engaging questions posed by the discovery of a new species, they have to embark on (some might say endure) the process of ensuring that what they have found is indeed a new species. Some scientists compare it to the search for the perfect mate: researching everything that has ever been written about what constitutes a perfect mate, then interviewing your potential mate’s friends and family to ensure that the prospect is exactly who he or she appears to be. In the case of a new species, after ensuring that it is not an impostor, next comes the process of deciding on a name and getting a publication interested enough in your newfound life-form to publish an article about it. After all this, a specimen of your new species must be deposited in a museum collection so that others can compare their discoveries to yours for years to come. Much like matchmaking in the modern world, declaration of a new species is anything but a simple process.

Text and images reprinted with permission from World Ocean Census: A Global Survey of Marine Life by Darlene Trew Crist, Gail Scowcroft and James M. Harding Jr., Firefly Books, 2009

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