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Marine biodiversity isn't as great as scientists thought

Researchers on the project estimate that there are still some 10,000 marine species out there waiting to be discovered.

By Brooks Hays
Marine biodiversity isn't as great as scientists thought
The breadcrumb sponge, Halichondria panicea, has been named 56 times throughout scientific history. Photo by Bengt Littorin/CC

OSTEND, Belgium, March 12 (UPI) -- Over the years, the literature of marine science has become a bit redundant. Recently, scholars set about to sort through the mess.

After completing a review of nearly all the marine species ever named in the scientific literature, researchers at the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) found nearly half of all creatures, 45 percent, to be duplicates.

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Some 200 editors of WoRMS scanned dozens of historic databases for papers purporting to have discovered and named new species. A total of 418,850 marine species were found; 190,400 were found to be duplicates and deleted from the record books, leaving 228,450 accepted species.

"Though a few relatively minor gaps remain, we consider the register now virtually complete with respect to species described throughout scientific history," explained WoRMS co-chairman Jan Mees, director of the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ), in Belgium, where the project is headquartered. "And, of course, we are constantly updating with newly described species, revisions of taxonomy, and adding occasional species that have been overlooked."

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One of the most repeated discoveries was that of the rough periwinkles, a snail which researchers found had been rediscovered 112 times. With the 100-plus duplicates now erased, its first name, Littorina saxatilis -- given in 1792 by naturalist Giuseppe Olivi -- is the only one that remains in the record books.

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Similarly, the breadcrumb sponge was found to have been given 56 different names over the course of scientific history.

The good news is that these repetitions in most cases came about when researching scientific findings was an especially laborious process. The Internet, of course, has changed that.

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Researchers on the project estimate there are still some 10,000 marine species out there in laboratory jars waiting to be identified and described in scientific papers. And when they are, editors at WoRMS will be ready to ensure they're not naming a species that's already been found.

But even despite the repetitions, researchers say modern scientists are still making great progress in naming the ocean's unidentified creatures. Since 2008, more than 1,000 new-to-science marine species have been described -- including 122 new sharks and rays, 131 goby fish and a new type of barracuda swimming in the Mediterranean.

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