Tuesday 23 December 2014

Treasure trove of creatures lies beneath waves

Tim Ecott

Published 05/08/2010 | 05:00

A Dragon Fish is just one of the bizarre creatures of the deep
A Dragon Fish is just one of the bizarre creatures of the deep

Tourists forced out of the water on the Costa Blanca this week by an 'invasion' of jellyfish will probably not have had time to admire the creatures' bright purple hue or the way their luminous, transparent bodies emit a ghostly, yellow glow at night.

Seen from below, with a shaft of sunlight illuminating the purple veins of their pulsing domes, they are as beautiful as a Tiffany glass lampshade.

Some of the beach-bound swimmers gazing at the forbidden Mediterranean may be gladdened by the news that the sea has been identified in the new Census of Marine Life as one of the world's top five areas for marine biodiversity.

The others are the oceans off Australia, Japan, China and the Gulf of Mexico, each containing as many as 33,000 individual forms of life that can be scientifically classified as species. In total, the census estimates that there are more than 230,000 known marine species -- but this is probably less than a quarter of what lives in the sea.

The Census of Marine Life is being co-ordinated in Washington DC by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and has involved scientists in more than 80 countries working over the past decade. They hope that by creating the first catalogue of the world's oceans we can begin to understand the great ecological questions about habitat loss, pollution and overfishing.

So far, the census tells us that fish account for about 12pc of sea life and that other easily recognisable vertebrates -- whales, turtles, seals and so on -- are just 2pc of what lives beneath the waves.

It is the creepy-crawlies that are out there in really big numbers; almost 40pc of identified marine species are crustaceans and molluscs -- things like crabs, shrimp and sea-snails. Jellyfish are part of the Cnidaria group, along with anemones and corals -- about 5pc of the total.

The census continues to gather images and data relating to a range of creatures that could have slithered from the pages of science fiction.

Neither Jules Verne nor Isaac Asimov could do justice to the shape and form of Chiasmodon niger -- "the great swallower" -- with its cadaverous skull, metallic pink flesh and needlelike teeth, accompanied by a ballooning stomach that allows it to swallow bigger animals.

For its bizarre variety and for its enduring mystery, we must learn to treasure the sea. The Marine Census helps us understand that it is the less glamorous creatures that are the great bedrock of life on which the oceans depend.

The final Marine Census results will be formally presented in October, but hidden within the already released information is a dark message.

Maps showing the density of large fish populations in tropical waters reveal that numbers of many of the biggest open ocean species have declined by more than 50pc since the 1960s and specific species, including many of the sharks, by as much as 90pc.

In recent years there have been other jellyfish 'invasions'. In 2007, 100,000 fish at Northern Ireland's only salmon farm were killed by the same 'mauve stingers' affecting the Spanish beaches.

There is evidence the global jellyfish invasion is gathering pace. As Mediterranean turtles lose their nesting sites to beach developments, or die in fishing nets, and the vanishing population of other large predators such as bluefin tuna are fished out, their prey is doing what nature does best: filling a void.

With typical culinary inventiveness, Japanese chefs have already begun experimenting with recipes for jellyfish ice-cream and jellyfish tofu. It may be the future of seafood. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Tim Ecott is the author of 'Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World' (Penguin)

Irish Independent

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