New Map Charts Diversity, Distribution and Abundance of Ocean Life

October 3, 2010
Contact:

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu

DURHAM, N.C. – A new map developed by Duke University researchers, in partnership with the Census of Marine Life and National Geographic Maps, provides the most detailed overview yet of life in the world’s oceans.

The two-sided, poster-sized map, available online athttp://comlmaps.org/oceanlifemap, is based on 10 years of data from the international Census of Marine Life and other scholarly sources.

It is being publicly presented for the first time, along with other documents and findings from the census, at a news conference today (October 4) in London, U.K., at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

The map took more than two years to plan, develop and design, and includes new data previously not available in any one document, says Patrick Halpin, associate professor of marine geospatial ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“The value of this map is that lets us see patterns of species diversity and migration in a new light, and provides a clearer picture of biological abundance, which is very hard to measure,” he says. “We see connections that couldn’t be documented before.”  The hope, he says, is that the map will attract greater public attention to the census and its discoveries.

Among other things, the map identifies the regions that are home to the world’s greatest concentrations of marine biodiversity and abundance; the long-distance migration paths of key predators; the regions that have experienced the greatest impacts from human activities; and the locations of coral reefs, hydrothermal vents, seeps, seamounts and other geological features that act as “islands of high diversity and abundance,” says Halpin, whose team at Duke’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Laboratory created the document with input from census leaders.

Each side of the color-coded map illustrates a different set of related topics or themes. On the side titled “Diversity, Distribution, Abundance,” the main image tracks the long-distance migrations of 11 taxonomic groups of ecologically important predators, including sharks, sea turtles, seabirds and tuna.  A smaller panel maps vertical movement in the water column — how fish and zooplankton migrate up and down, from sunlit surface waters to the murky depths, in response to changing diurnal and seasonal stimuli.

On the side of the map titled “Past, Present and Future,” the main image shows which regions of the world’s oceans are home to the greatest biodiversity of species, and which have experienced the greatest human impacts. Marine hot spots appear around the Philippines, Japan, China, Indonesia, Australia, India and Sri Lanka, South Africa, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Biodiversity and high human impacts collide in coastal areas such as the Western Pacific and North Atlantic. A smaller map charts the abundance of seafloor life of the world’s oceans – the quantity of animals, measured as biomass, found in each region regardless of the number of species.

“While the greatest biodiversity is found in the warm waters of the tropics, the greatest abundance of life appears in high latitudes in the polar regions,” Halpin says. “So diversity and abundance have almost exactly opposite trends.”

Halpin and his team, Nicholas School research associates Jesse Cleary and Ben Donnelly, used geographical information systems technology to bring together key findings from the wealth of census and related data archived at the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (http://www.iobis.org), the world’s largest, publicly accessible marine species database. With more than 2,700 census contributors and thousands of related publications to draw from, they had to make tough choices.

“Ninety-nine percent of the data from the census isn’t here, but the key themes – that life in Earth’s oceans is richer, more connected and more altered than expected – are represented,” Halpin says.

Most of the data included on the new map would have been impossible to document 10 or 15 years ago, he explains. Recent advances in satellite telemetry tracking devices, sonar, underwater cameras and microphones, autonomous reef monitoring structures, DNA barcoding to identify species, and other technologies have made it possible.

The Census of Marine Life is a network of researchers in more than 80 nations who engaged in a 10-year scientific initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in the oceans.

Halpin, Cleary and Donnelly are part of the census’ Mapping and Visualization Team. They will join other project contributors at the October 4 news conference in London, and on October 5 will make a more detailed presentation about the map at a symposium at the Royal Society in London. Principal funding for the mapping project came from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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Note to Media: Patrick Halpin, Jesse Cleary and Ben Donnelly can be reached for additional comments at (919) 943-0063 (cell) or phalpin@duke.edujesse.cleary@duke.edu, orbendy@duke.edu.

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