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JOE PALCA, host:

This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca, sitting in for Ira Flatow. Later in this hour, we'll talk about the science of smell, and how aroma has wafted into poetry, art and music. But first, they say there are a lot of fish in the sea. Oh, they sure do, but just how many crabs, fish and clams, are there? And where do they live? Those are some of the questions researchers from the Census of Marine Life are trying to answer.

So far, the census researchers have listed more than 100,000 species and that puts them at about halfway, since they expect to find more than 200,000 different species by the time the census completes in two years. The census takers recently inaugurated the World Register of Marine Species, an encyclopedic database of photos and information about ocean dwellers from all over the world, and you can take a look at that if you go online at marinespecies.org.

Joining me now to talk about the census is Sylvia Earle. She's an oceanographer and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington. She joins us on the phone from Texas, where she's on a trip today. Thanks for joining us, and welcome back to the program, Dr. Earle.

Dr. SYLVIA EARLE (Oceanographer; Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society): Well, nice to be onboard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Good. It's that marine reference again. If you want to ask Dr. Earle a question and if you want to learn more about our topic - well, first of all, if you want to ask Dr. Earle a question, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK, and we also have links to our topic at sciencefriday.com. So, Sylvia Earle, I mean, what was the genesis of this census? What was - why were we interested in doing this?

Dr. EARLE: It seems like the logical thing to do, to know who your neighbors are, after all. If we were to land a spacecraft, and we are landing spacecrafts, on other parts of the solar system, one of the great questions is, is there anything alive there? And so far, we've come up empty-handed. No evidence for sure that anything lives elsewhere other than this planet, but we have not really begun to explore our own backyard, if you will.

Most of the efforts so far have been concentrated on the land, and if you take all the exploration from the time that humans started noticing that we have other creatures around us and began naming them up to the present time, about 1.5 million species, a large number of insects, quite a few plants, mammals, birds and the like, but the ocean has largely been neglected. And the Census of Marine Life is helping to fill that gap.

We're just beginning. You mentioned that in the next two years, it is thought that we'll come up with something in excess of 200,000 inventoried. I think presently on the order of 250,000 have been given names somewhere on the planet by researchers over the years, but that's - really doesn't do justice to what we suspect is out there, the order - to may be an order of magnitude or even more than that. We're talking about the possibility of 10 to 50 or more million in the ocean alone that have yet to be discovered. Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, understanding that we've seen less than five percent of the ocean, let alone explored it.

PALCA: Wow. Now, wait a minute. You said that there could be millions, and I thought - I was talking in the introduction about hundreds of thousands. Are we talking the difference between microscopic versus, you know, macroscopic organisms?

Dr. EARLE: Not entirely, although until very recently, the microscopic creatures have been, really, largely ignored. It was imagined that they were bacteria, for example, going back to the 1950s, were thought to be in short supply in the ocean. Now, based on research that is forthcoming using new means of - using genetic testing, the DNA that is inherent in all living things, turns out that there are really probably millions of as yet unidentified.

But even in samples taken recently by Dr. Craig Venter and that has been repeated by others - Venter is well-known for his human genome research, but others who have been working in other parts of the world using similar techniques. In little spoonfuls of water that are being sampled, as many as 1,000 unique kinds of bacteria are turning up, most of them in very small numbers, but a few in large numbers, and samples that are relatively close to each other are turning up not much similarity, not much overlap.

PALCA: Yeah, wow. You know, one of the things that I was reading that seemed kind of interesting is this problem of naming, because if you've got people all over the world doing this, what happens when somebody calls it - somebody calls a little marine creature one thing and somebody else calls it something, and they each think they've discovered something new and they were talking about the same thing?

Dr. EARLE: It is a problem, but through the new computer technologies that are available, we've gotten a big assist in terms of helping to bring resolution to this. And not so long ago, and I've worked with plant systematics myself, especially marine algae, you had to dig through piles of books and get in touch with all the experts and try to figure out if anyone had discovered previously or named previously a little critter that you thought might be new.

Now, owing to - a part of what is involved with the Census of Marine Life, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, otherwise known as OBIS, is keeping track of historic observations and new discoveries, and people can tune in to OBIS and get a lot of information in a very short period of time. And it doesn't mean that you can neglect the scholarly work of - in trying to make sure that nobody has discovered something like what you've got in hand previously, but it certainly is a big help.

PALCA: We have people who gather at Science Island in Second Life to listen to this program, and there's someone named Laura there who has an interesting question. The question is, are we going to store the DNA of what we find?

Dr. EARLE: Well, that's a tall order, but right now, personally, I know of no such efforts with marine creatures in a comprehensive way. But it does offer some interesting possibilities for what might be done especially for creatures that seem to be on the way out, and unfortunately, despite what seems like a huge diversity of life, and there is huge diversity of life, some species are in a very precarious state, and just as on the land, we've lost a fair number of marine species in the last 12,000 years, but especially in the last 100 years. And the pace is picking up, as we see the destruction of habitats in the sea.

PALCA: Hm. Well, let's go to the phones now. Our number is 800-989-8255. And let's take a call from Sean in Amherst, Massachusetts. Sean, welcome to Science Friday.

SEAN (Caller): Hi. How are you?

PALCA: Good. How are you?

SEAN: Good. Dr. Earle, it's an honor to speak with you.

Dr. EARLE: Nice to hear from you.

SEAN: My question is regarding - I'm going to pull over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Oh, good. Yes, please.

SEAN: My question is regarding basically the fact that taxonomists and experts in, you know, physically identifying things are retiring and leaving, and there's no NSF funding, really, to - you know, you try to get an NSF grant funded to...

PALCA: That's National Science Foundation, yeah.

SEAN: ...taxonomy. That's just terrible. How do you feel about that? And do you think that pendulum's going to swing the other way anytime soon?

Dr. EARLE: I certainly hope so, because it's vital that we maintain that knowledge base. Right now, about - well, more than 2,000 scientists from 82 countries are engaged in this Census of Marine Life exercise. And it is a major concern, where are the youngsters coming along. One promising sign is that, just as in the early days of natural history, excitement on the land, many so-called amateurs got involved.

Much of what we know about birds has come about because of the interest in bird watching. And now fish watching is becoming interesting as well. So, divers are volunteering their time to go out and count fish and to make assessments of who's doing what. And it all starts with knowing. People began to care once they know a little bit about something, and it's hard to care if you don't know.

Right now, the ignorance about the ocean and who lives there and the nature of the creatures who're in the sea, it's pathetic, in a way, that the knowledge base, generally speaking, is so thin. But communicating what's out there and inspiring people to go see for themselves, everybody can be an explorer. Everyone has a potential for discovering new things, new species, by jumping in the ocean. It's true in your backyard, too, but it's especially true in the ocean.

PALCA: Cool. Sean, thanks for that call. Let's - we have time for one more quick call, and why don't we go to Vicky in South Dakota? Vicky, welcome to Science Friday.

VICKY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for having me on.

PALCA: Sure.

VICKY: OK. I have a question. I've heard that climate change is possibly going to affect ocean creatures first and maybe more...

PALCA: Oops. Vicky, did we lose you? Well, I think we got the gist of the question, Sylvia Earle. Are the oceans going to see the effects of climate change? And will the census maybe reveal the changes that the climate is having on the ocean?

Dr. EARLE: Absolutely. One of the vital aspects of this Census of Marine Life is to give us some idea of the diversity of life in the sea, where most of diversity on the planet actually resides, and to see the changes over time. That's one of the aspects that is most interesting about the census, looking back, what did occur, looking at what is out there now and also to project forward in the future. And the diversity of life is one of the keys to maintaining stability, and it's something that we should be very concerned with.

We would like the planet to stay pretty much the way it is. These conditions after four and a half billion years of fine-tuning have finally come to a point that are - it's just right for human kind. The last thing we want to do is disturb it, disrupt it and cause great changes. But we're seeing that happen through the climate change, which will have a big impact on the sea as well as the land. Greater diversity gives greater hope that we can weather these ups and downs. And so, understanding the nature of what we've got and figuring out how to protect it is really very much in our best interests.

PALCA: Well, fair enough. That's where we have to leave it on this discussion, although I'm totally enthralled with the idea of a class of hobbyists known as fish watchers.

Dr. EARLE: Yeah.

PALCA: But I'm all for it. I think it's a great idea, a fish watcher. Anyway, we have to go. Thanks very much for joining us, Sylvia Earle.

Dr. EARLE: I'm glad to be part of the action.

PALCA: OK. Sylvia Earle is explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society and executive director of the Global Marine Programs for Conservation International. When we come back, smell and the science behind it. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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