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Shining light on marine life

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Swima bomiviridisAn entirely new group of sea creatures has been discovered living at depths of 3,000m in the Pacific Ocean. Ranging in size from 2cm to 10cm, they are worms that can discard bits of their own tissue in the form of bioluminescent “bombs”, which probably serve to distract predators. This escape tactic is unusual, but not previously unknown.

The creatures were recovered by submarine robots off the coast of the Philippines and the west coast of the US and Mexico. The first species to be described in detail has been given the binomial Swima bombiviridis, meaning “green-bomb swimmer”, since it produces “bombs” of a brilliant green.

The discovery, reported in Science magazine, highlights how little is known about the marine life of our planet. The Census of Marine Life is a global network of researchers from 80 nations engaged in a 10-year initiative to fill in some of these gaps around the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in the oceans. The world’s first comprehensive census of marine life is due to be released next year.

Census scientists estimate that around 230,000 species of marine animal have been described and reside in collections. Since the census began in 2000, researchers have added more than 5,600 species to the list, and they aim to add thousands more by 2010.

The project aims to describe all of sea life in an online encyclopaedia containing a webpage for each species. It will also estimate how many species remain undiscovered. This number could be over a million if all small animals and protists are included. For comparison, biologists have described around 1.5 million terrestrial plants and animals.

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