Hot Topics: In the Census of Marine Life, how do we keep track of all those species?

Hot Topics: In the Census of Marine Life, how do we keep track of all those species?

Edward Vanden Berghe, executive director of the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS)
Recently, the journal Nature published a paper by several scientists about the global diversity of marine species, using data Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). It was one of the first papers to rely largely on data from OBIS, which is based at Rutgers, and is the database of the Census of Marine Life. Edward Vanden Berghe, a marine biologist by training, is the executive director of OBIS, and a co-author of the paper.

What is Ocean Biogeographic Information System, and what is it for? 

The Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS, is an online global biogeographic data source, designed to provide scientists, policy makers and citizens with the global information needed to manage the global ocean. Historically, what we’ve learned about the oceans results from specific projects, limited in time and space. By themselves, those projects aren’t big enough to help us address global problems – climate change, invasive species, harmful algal blooms, and the loss of biodiversity. We pool the results of many individual studies, creating an information base commensurate with the problems facing humankind. OBIS aims to stimulate research and generate new hypotheses on evolutionary processes and species distributions by making data freely accessible over the Internet and interoperable with other data systems. In July 2010, OBIS held over 27,700,000 records, from over 114,000 different species and 847 datasets. So, not only are our data open to all, but anyone who wants to can see how the data were generated. That’s very important these days.

How did your co-authors use the database for their research?

Part of the analysis was directly based on OBIS data. The data were extracted from the OBIS database, and summarized by geographic location. We’ve divided the world into cells of 800,000 square kilometers each, and each cell consists of squares of 10 degrees by 10 degrees. Calculating these summaries is difficult, because the globe’s oceans are sampled very unevenly. But eventually, we have a list of the species in each square, and an estimate of the number of species we expect to find in each square. Our Nature paper is the first to analyze such a broad dataset, with information derived from so many different sources. OBIS facilitates such studies by making its holdings freely and openly available to all. By making all data publicly available, we make it possible for any scientist to check the calculations, and thus improve the transparency of the scientific process.

How might non-scientists use the database -- or contribute to it?

An amateur-naturalist scuba diver – and I’m a diver myself – might want to check which species he’s likely to find on his next dive trip. Amateur naturalists have made a huge contribution to other sciences. One of the reasons why birds are so well known is that there are large communities outside the formal scientific world looking at them, and keeping track of their occurrences.  One of our longer-term plans is to establish a communication with the scuba-diving community, and hope that soon they will be making their observations available to OBIS. But for scientists, the most important use of our data is by environmental policy makers at all levels.

Media Contact: Ken Branson
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