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February 10, 1998

Submitted by:

J. Frederick Grassle, Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences

Rutgers University, 71 Dudley Rd, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901-8521


Submitted to:

Jesse H. Ausubel, Program Officer, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Suite 2550, 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10111-0242


This proposal requests $30,000 to complete the preliminary work and feasibility studies for the preparation of an on-line atlas of benthic marine animals. This project would have two objectives: a) to help define the observational strategy for the benthic environment in a possible census of marine animals, and b) to create a framework of electronic databases incorporating currently existing (historical) information appropriate for the possible inflow of new benthic information. The work would be carried out during the period 1 March-31 August. The results of the feasibility studies will include proposed data protocols, a framework web site, a few initial maps on-line, and a detailed work plan (including costs, schedule, and identified responsible personnel) for the full project.


A workshop of benthic experts "To explore the value, timeliness, and feasibility of stimulating, designing, and organizing a period of intense, comprehensive oceanic observation whose purpose would be to assess and explain the global distribution of marine life" (Ausubel 1997), was held October 30, 1997 at Rutgers University. Participants, who discussed innovative approaches to estimate the abundance and distribution of life in marine benthic habitats, included world authorities on: important taxonomic groups (fishes as well as other marine animals), less well-known habitats (coral reefs, continental shelves, deep-sea sediments, and hydrothermal vents), statistics, and quantitative ecology.

Participants unanimously agreed on the timeliness and utility of summarizing recent major advances in marine systematics through a series of global electronic maps of species distributions. To better understand ecological and evolutionary processes in the ocean, there is a need to determine species ranges, species/area relationships, patterns of species richness, and biogeographic boundaries. For many of the major taxa, species distribution data are beginning to be summarized into electronic data bases that could be adapted, with modest additional expenditure, to produce a global electronic atlas. Environmental data such as: bottom topography, sediment type, kinetic energy, climatic oscillations, nutrient flux productivity, and dissolved oxygen concentration would be developed. Maps of sampling effort would indicate gaps in knowledge. New analytical approaches would be explored using spatial data bases to test ecological and zoogeographic hypotheses (processes controlling boundaries, ratios of diversity across taxa, species/area relationships, local vs. regional species richness, etc.). Systematists and taxonomists would be fully involved in the task of identifying sampling gaps, setting standards for future studies, and developing new hypotheses. Systematics and species-level information would play a central role in the design of future studies, thus revitalizing this area of marine science. Many of those present were willing to redirect their present efforts in order to produce a global map of their particular taxon within approximately one year.

Knowing patterns in species geographic ranges is an important step in understanding the structure of biological communities (see review by Gaston 1990). Topics considered ripe for study this year by the National Science Foundation's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (http://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/nceas-web/projects) include: 1) the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of species borders, 2) infusing ecological theory in design of environmental monitoring, 3) quantification of uncertainty in spatial data for ecological applications, 4) sampling curves in ecology, 5) spatial process and multi-species interactions, 6) universal phenomena in ecology, and 7) developing the theory of marine reserves. Species-level data bases with broad geographic coverage are not available for examining such issues in the marine environment. The starting point for developing a theoretical basis for understanding global marine biological processes is adequate species level descriptions and zoogeographic patterns of species distributions.

Currently, the only map of species richness per unit area (Valentine 1974) recognizes 12 shallow-water geographic areas and 6 undefined levels of relative species richness. The UNEP Global Biodiversity Assessment recognizes six classes of "Oceanic Realms" (UNEP 1995, p. 100). The most extensive shallow biogeographic classification recognizes 49 "Large Marine Ecosystems" (Sherman et al. 1993, p.4; UNEP 1995, p. 502). The deep-sea floor is left out of existing biogeographic maps. As a consequence, the deep-ocean floor is still frequently called a desert, where high pressures, cold, darkness, and lack of food purportedly prevent most species from surviving. In fact, the high diversity of species in the deep-sea is now established (Hessler and Sanders 1967, Grassle and Maciolek 1992, Poore and Wilson 1993, Blake and Grassle 1994). The fact that some continental shelves (Sanders 1968, Poore and Wilson 1993, Gray 1994) and coral reefs (Reaka-Kudla 1996) have similar species richness is also not recorded in existing biogeographic compendia.

Several systematists at the workshop are making remarkable contributions to increasing the numbers of known species in several taxa. The marked increase in numbers of species described in many important taxonomic groups suggests that a contemporary synthesis of existing data will yield important new insights. A subsequent Marine Census based on this initial synthesis would have a strong element of discovery. Even modest quantitative sampling of high diversity marine habitats, in the context of a global assessment of major taxa, is likely to lead to discovery of new higher taxa and a plethora of new species. By working with world experts on several major taxa an electronic atlas of species distributions could be produced with relatively modest effort within a year. The atlas and associated data bases would stimulate the study of marine life in the same way a similar compilation led to a major advance in marine paleontology. Comparison of global patterns of species distributions with synoptic, and more readily available physical and chemical observations (from the networks of sensors proposed as a Global Ocean Observing System, and remote sensing data available on the web) will suggest new hypotheses concerning processes controlling patterns of life in the ocean. And, an on-line atlas could contribute greatly toward the benthic observational strategy for the possible "Census of the Fishes."


1. Develop a common GIS data base for global benthic systematics data and a framework Web Site

Our first task will be to generate protocols for data format, metadata standards, and an appropriate system for searching the data base. This will require consultation with eventual contributors and review of current practices for maintaining systematics data, including at the National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) Program of the U.S Geological Survey, NESDIS National Oceanographic Data Center, NOAA Coastal Resources Center, Expert-Center for Taxonomic Identifications (ETI), Species 2000, the University of Rhode Island/MIT DODS system, the Natural History Museum in London, the FAO's FishBase, and the newly established CephBase. During the feasibility study we will propose protocols and, time permitting, gain agreement for them. We will build a Web Site (Benthic Base) developing the framework. Frederick Grassle and technical staff at the Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences will have responsibility for this aspect of the project. Most of the required funding is for the work of the core technical team at Rutgers.

2. Develop a few sample "maps" on-line and the proposed overall "table of contents"

As interim convener for the project, Frederick Grassle will form a small, international editorial committee to guide decisions on the content of the atlas/site. The group will work by email and other telecommunications.

The committee will select 1-3 animal groups for prototype mapping during the feasibility study as well as consider the full range of possible content (and hyperlinks). Through a joint effort with Diversitas (ICSU's global coordinating mechanism for biodiversity studies), we will work with Geoffrey Boxshall (Museum of Natural History, London) on a strategy for incorporating data on deep-sea fauna. (Taxonomic work on benthic fauna is being funded in Britain by the Total petroleum company through Diversitas.) We expect to give priority to the incorporation of Nigel Merrett's data on demersal fish and peracarid crustaceans (isopods, amphipods, and cumacea). In New Zealand, NIWA is developing global data bases and a taxonomic memoir series for bryozoa, brachiopods, and echinoderms and regional data bases for sponges and polychaetes, and some of these might be candidates for early inclusion. Among the benthic experts present at the October '97 Rutgers Workshop, several offered to produce data in an appropriate form if a core project were able to provide some technical support as well as resources for research assistance. Those poised to participate in the project include: Watling for amphipods and cumacea, Rosenberg for some Classes of molluscs, Fautin for anemones, Poore and Wilson in Australia for isopods, Potts for corals, Winston for bryozoa, Blake for some Families of polychaetes, and Buzas for foraminifera.

The content of the site should include physical as well as biological data, in part using templates based on remote sensing data. Physical information might be integrated from: 1) NOAA NGDC Global Seafloor Topography, 2) multispectral ocean color maps from NASA SeaWifs and Navy NRL (showing variables such as chlorophyll, water clarity, and suspended sediment concentrations, 3) AVHRR sea surface temperature data, and 4) bathymetric maps from Seasat satellite radar altimetry and towed sonar systems such as GLORIA. An important question is better characterization of oceanic physical boundaries.

 3. Development of detailed work plan.

A fully-developed plan and design for an electronic atlas for marine benthic data will be completed by September 1, 1998. The plan will include the potential commitments from individual systematists and a projection of costs for turning these specific data bases into the appropriate form for incorporation into the atlas. The goal would be substantially to complete the atlas by the end of 1999, in time to influence strongly the observational strategy of the proposed marine census. Big gaps as well as hints of patterns should be evident. Consulting widely with the expert community, Frederick Grassle will have responsibility for bringing together the technical and substantive dimensions of the project in the plan and for gaining endorsement. In this regard, it may prove useful to anticipate the formation of a steering committee for the full project.


An on-line atlas of the benthos could greatly help stimulate and organize the participation of the benthic research community in a possible census of marine life. If the marine census does not proceed, the electronic databases developed will still be a useful contribution to understanding, and communication of understanding, of life in the oceans.



Ausubel, Jesse H. 1997 (January). The census of the fishes: initial thoughts, ms.

Blake, J.A. and J.F. Grassle 1994. Benthic community structure on the U.S. South Atlantic Slope off the Carolinas: Spatial heterogeneity in a current-dominated system. Deep-Sea Research 41:835-874.

Gaston, K. J. 1990. Patterns in the geographical ranges of species. Biol. Rev. 65:105-129.

Grassle, J.F. and Maciolek, N.J. 1992. Deep-sea species richness: regional and local diversity estimates from quantitative bottom samples. The American Naturalist 139, 313-341.

Gray, J.S. 1994. Is deep-sea species diversity really so high? Species diversity of the Norwegian continental shelf. Mar. Ecol. Progr. Ser. 112:205-209.

Hessler, R.R. and Sanders H.L. 1967. Faunal diversity in the deep sea. Deep-Sea Research 14, 65-78.

Poore, G.C. and G.D. Wilson. 1993. Marine species richness. Nature 361:597-598.

Reaka-Kudla, M.L. 1997. The global biodiversity of coral reefs: a comparison with rain forests. In: Biodiversity II, M.L. Reaka-Kudla, D.E. Wilson and E.O. Wilson, eds. Joseph Henry Press, Wahsington, D.C.

Sanders, H.L. 1968. Marine benthic diversity: a comparative study. Amer. Naturalist 102:243-282.

Sherman, Kenneth. 1993. Large Marine ecosystems as global units for marine resources management--an ecological perspective. In: Large Marine Ecosystems, K. Sherman, L.M. Alexander, and B.D.Gold, eds. AAAS Press.

UNEP, United Nations Environmental Programme. 1995. Global Biodiversity Assessment, V.H. Heywood, Ex. Editor, R.T. Watson, Chair. Cambridge U Press.

Valentine, James, and Eldredge M. Moores. 1974. Plate tectonics and the history of life in the oceans. Scientific American 230(4):80-89.

von Alt, C., M.P. De Luca, S.M. Glenn, J.F. Grassle, and D.B. Haidvogel. 1997. LEO-15: Monitoring &Managing Coastal Resources. Sea Technology 38(8):10-16.