Photos: All creatures under the sea

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  1. Silent scream

    When attacked by a predator, this deep-sea jellyfish (Atolla wyvillei) uses bioluminescence to "scream" for help. The amazing light show is known as a burglar alarm display. This jellyfish was photographed by the ROV Hyper Dolphin east of Japan's Izu-Oshima Island, 2,640 feet (805 meters) below the surface. (JAMSTEC) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Diversity in the deep

    The Census of Marine Life is aimed at cataloging as many species of sea creatures as possible. This is a Venus flytrap sea anemone (Actinoscyphia sp.) from the Gulf of Mexico. Its common name includes references to two terrestrial plants ("Venus flytrap" and "anemone"), but the species is classified as a type of polyp. It closes its tentacles to capture prey or protect itself. (I. MacDonald, D.L. Felder and D.K. Camp) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Octopus in the Gulf

    A deep-water octopus (Benthoctopus sp.) sits on the seafloo in the Gulf of Mexico's Alaminos Canyon, about 8800 feet (2700 meters) beneath the sea surface. (I. MacDonald, D.L. Felder and D.K. Camp) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Neighbor to an oil rig

    This queen angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris) was spotted near an oil rig in the Gulf waters off the coast of Texas. (G. Haralson / I. MacDonald, D.L. Felder and D.K. Camp) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Cooper of the Sea

    This Gulf of Mexico amphipod, Phronoma sedentaria, is known as the "Cooper of the Sea" because the crustacean species lives inside a barrel-shaped creature known as a salp, also shown here. (H. Bahena / I. MacDonald, D.L. Felder and D.K. Camp) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. King of the hydroids

    Branchiocerianthus imperator is the largest known type of solitary hydroid. Hydroids look like flowers, but they're actually animals with tentacles. This one was spotted by the HOV Shinkai 2000 in Japan's Sagami Bay at a depth of 2,200 feet (670 meters). (JAMSTEC) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Star of the sea

    Asteronyx loveni is a type of brittle star that tends to cling onto another marine species known as the sea pen. This brittle star was spotted with its arms flung wide in Japanese waters off Sanriku, at a depth of 4,150 feet (1,265 meters). (JAMSTEC) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Spiky spider

    The spider conch (Lambis chiragra) has six spines on the lip of its shell. The shell's pearly interior displays beautiful tints of orange and yellow. The species is listed as "vulnerable" on the Red List of threatened animals of Singapore. (Shaoqing Wang) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Boneworms at work

    Osedax worms, more commonly known as boneworms, consume bones on the seafloor. The reddish feathery plumes act as gills. All Osedax males are dwarfs and live on the trunks of females. (Yoshihiro Fujiwara / JAMSTEC) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Paper bubble

    This red-lined paper bubble (Hydatinidae gen. sp.) was discovered in a sperm whale carcass in the Kagoshima whale fall, off Japan's Cape Nomamisaki. The gastropod's tiny eyes are protected by cephalic shields. The "paper bubble" is actually an extremely thin shell. (Yoshihiro Fujiwara / JAMSTEC) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dangerous beauty

    The giant Caribbean anemone (Condylactis gigantea) grows to a height of about 6 inches (15 centimeters). Its tentacles are beautiful ... but they contain toxin-bearing nematocysts that paralyze the sea anemone's prey. (Eduardo Klein) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Fire in water

    The bearded fireworm (Hermodice carunculata) is a type of bristleworm, with groups of white bristles along each side. The venom-filled bristles easily penetrate the flesh and break off if this worm is handled. They produce an intense burning sensation in the area of contact, hence the common name of the Caribbean species. (Eduardo Klein) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Spongebob's buddy

    These nocturnal echinoderms (Ophiothrix suesonii) are called sponge brittle stars. They are very common in the Caribbean. They are so named because they are found exclusively either inside or outside living sponges. (César Herrera) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. What big teeth!

    Imagine living in the sea where it is permanently dark, cold, and food is hard to find. For many animals at depth, it may be weeks to months between meals. If you find something to eat, you have to hang on to it. This is why so many deep-sea fishes have lots of big teeth. This dragonfish, spotted off the coast of Australia, even has teeth on its tongue. They would be terrifying animals ... if they weren’t the size of a banana. (Julian Finn / Museum Victoria) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Fish with a lure

    The sargassumfish (Histrio histrio) is a member of the frogfish family (Antennariidae), a group of small, globular fishes with stalked, grasping, limblike pectoral fins with small gill openings behind the base, a trapdoor-like mouth high on the head, and a "fishing lure" (formed by the first dorsal spine) on the snout. It typically lives in open waters in close association with floating sargassum weed (Sargassum natans and S. fluitans) but is frequently blown into nearshore and bay waters during storms. This specimen was found off the coast of Korea. (Dr. Sung Kim) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. The males of Leptocheliidae have legs that are larger than those of the females, in some cases significantly exceeding the body length. While the legs are normally held folded, they are extended fully forward during swimming. The extremely slender legs found in the Leptochelia minuta group are unlikely to be capable of any feeding or locomotory function. This specimen was collected from the waters off Australia's Lizard Island. (Magda Blazewicz-paszkowycz) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Kooky cucumber

    This newly discovered sea cucumber species, Elpidia belyaevi, was first found in the Arctic deep sea. (Antonina Rogacheva) Back to slideshow navigation
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msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/3/2010 4:11:26 PM ET 2010-08-03T20:11:26

The oceans around Australia and Japan boast the greatest diversity of sea life on the planet, but the now oil-threatened Gulf of Mexico also ranks in the top five regions for variety of species.

Even before last April's oil spill, the gulf had been listed as threatened, according to the latest update of the Census of Marine Life, released Monday. Now it seems that the Gulf "is more threatened than we thought it was," said Mark Costello of the Leigh Marine Laboratory at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Regions where variety of life is most endangered tended to be the more enclosed seas, such as the Mediterranean, Gulf of Mexico, China's offshore shelves, the Baltic Sea and the Caribbean, according to the newly released study, which was done before the April oil spill.

"The sea today is in trouble," said biologist Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution, leader of the Census' coral reef project. "Its citizens have no vote in any national or international body, but they are suffering and need to be heard."

Researcher Ron O'Dor added that "there is a huge amount of diversity under the water. The ocean isn't just this blue sheet of cellophane that spreads out. The oxygen in every second breath we take is produced in the ocean. We ignore what is going on in the ocean at our peril."

The decade-long Census is scheduled to release its final report in London in October. The latest update was published Monday in the journal PLoS ONE.

Gulf ranks among top five habitats
The report disclosed that the Gulf of Mexico, where a battle is under way to clean up a massive oil spill, ranks fifth among 25 regions around the world for diversity of sea life.

The Gulf has 15,374 different species identified so far. That is an average of just over 10 different species per 1,000 square kilometers.

That does not mean that only 10 animals exist in an area of 1,000 square kilometers (about 386 square miles). It means that, on average, 10 different kinds of animals would be found in that area of ocean.

Australian waters had the most species at 32,889, closely followed by Japan with 32,777. Then came China, 22,365, and the Mediterranean, 16,848.

When the area of ocean is taken into consideration, South Korea comes out on top with 32.3 species per 1,000 square kilometers, followed by China, South Africa, the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

On the other end of the scale, Alaska, the Arctic, Antarctica and the Patagonian Shelf have the fewest species per area of ocean. In Antarctic oceans, the diversity count averaged just 0.4 species per 1,000 square kilometers.

Creatures great and small
What sort of things have the census researchers found?

Well, Australia has the dragonfish, a banana-sized creature with a mouth full of sharp teeth, some even on its tongue. It lives deep in the ocean, and since it may be a long time between meals, if it finds something to eat it needs to hang on to it.

In the Gulf of Mexico, queen angelfish have been seen hanging out around oil rigs, while the deep regions sport specialized octopuses.

The Caribbean has the bearded fireworm and nocturnal brittle stars, while off South Korea lives the sargassum fish. It has a trapdoor-like mouth high on the head, and a "fishing lure" formed by the first dorsal spine on the snout.

When it comes to what group of sea creatures have the most different species, it turns out to be crustaceans, such as shrimp, crabs and lobster.

Overall, the report said crustaceans make up nearly one-fifth of the species in the ocean — 19 percent. Close behind at 17 percent were mollusks such as squid, octopus, clams, snails and slugs. Fish make 12 percent of ocean species, and it is 10 percent each for protozoa and algae.

Smaller shares go to segmented worms (7 percent); cnidaria such as sea anemones, corals and jellyfish (5 percent); and the groups of sea creatures that include flatworms (3 percent), starfish (3 percent), sponges (3 percent), moss animals (2 percent) and sea squirts (1 percent).

Whales are in the 'other' category
The rest are other invertebrates (5 percent) and other vertebrates (2 percent). The "other vertebrates" include whales, sea lions, seals, sea birds, turtles and walruses. "Thus, some of the best-known marine animals comprise a tiny part of marine biodiversity," the Census of Marine Life said in a statement. That assessment is based purely on the number of species identified, rather than the species' abundance or total biomass.

The most widely found species tend to fall under two broad categories. On the small side of the scale would be microscopic plants and single-celled animals; on the large side of the scale would be seabirds and marine mammals that traverse the world's oceans.

The Census reported that the manylight viperfish (Chauliodus sloani) could be considered the "Everyman of the deep ocean," because sightings of the fish has been recorded in more than a quarter of the world's seas.

Patricia Miloslavich of Venezuela's Universidad Simon Bolivar, a co-senior scientist for the global effort and leader of the regional studies, said the Census would serve as a "baseline" for future research. However, the Smithsonian's Knowlton cautioned that most of the organisms in the world's oceans would "still remain nameless and their numbers unknown" even after the Census is finished.

"This is not an admission of failure," she said. "The ocean is simply so vast that, after 10 years of hard work, we still have only snapshots, though sometimes detailed, of what the sea contains. But it is an important and impressive start."

This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com. An earlier version of this report mischaracterized the species richness per unit of area, due to a multiplication factor in the research paper that was left out of the calculations.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Explainer: 10 secrets of the deep ocean

  • Mark Spear / Woods Hole Oceanogr

    The oceans cover more than 70 percent of the earth's surface, yet their depths remain largely unknown. It's a frontier that scientists are racing to explore using tools such as the deep-ocean submersible Alvin, shown here. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about 10 deep-ocean secrets that have come to light.

  • Deep-ocean octopuses have Antarctic origins

    Image: Megaleledon setebos
    Census of Marine Life

    Many deep ocean octopuses trace their origins back to relatives that swam in the waters around Antarctica. The migration began about 30 million years ago when the continent cooled and large ice sheets grew, forcing octopuses there into ever deeper waters. The climate shift also created a northbound flow of deep, cold water that carried the cephalopods to new habitats. As they adapted to new niches, new species evolved. Many lost their defensive ink sacs because the pitch-black ocean depths required no camouflage screen. The species known as Megaleledon setebos, shown here, is the closest living relative of the deep-sea octopuses' common ancestor.

  • 'Brittlestar City' found on undersea mountain

    Census Of Marine Life  /  AP

    The orange and red starfish relatives called brittlestars have managed to defy the odds and colonize the flanks of a giant, underwater peak on the Macquarie Ridge, an 870-mile-long underwater mountain range that stretches south from New Zealand to just short of the Antarctic Circle. The peak, known as a seamount, juts up into a swirling circumpolar current that flows by at 2.5 miles per hour, delivering ample food for the brittlestars to grab while sweeping away fish and other would-be predators. Another brittlestar species has settled on the seamount's flat summit, a habitat normally settled by corals and sponges.

  • Deep Antarctic waters, cradle of marine life

    Wiebke Brokeland / GCMB

    This pale crustacean from the genus Cylindrarcturus is one of more than 700 species new to science found scurrying, scampering and swimming in the frigid waters between 2,000 and 21,000 feet below the surface of the Weddell Sea off Antarctica. The discoveries were part of a research project to determine how species at different depths are related to each other there, and to other creatures around the world. "The Antarctic deep sea is potentially the cradle of life of the global marine species," team leader Angelika Brandt, an expert from the Zoological Institute and Zoological Museum at the University of Hamburg, said in a statement announcing the discoveries.

  • Northernmost black smokers discovered

    Credit: Center for Geobiology/U. of Bergen

    Scientists working deep inside the Arctic Circle have discovered a cluster of five hydrothermal vents, also known as black smokers, which spew out liquid as hot as 570 degrees Fahrenheit. The vents are 120 miles further north than the closest known vents, which tend to occur where the seafloor spreads apart at a quicker pace. This image shows the arm of a remotely operated vehicle reaching out to sample fluids billowing from the top three feet of the tallest vent, which reaches four stories off the seafloor. The chimney is covered with white bacteria that feast on the freshly delivered minerals.

  • Black smoker fossils hint at life's beginnings

    Timothy Kusky / Gondwana Research

    The discovery of primitive bacteria on 1.43 billion-year-old black-smoker fossils – a crosscut is shown here – unearthed from a Chinese mine adds weight to the idea that life may have originated in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, according to geologist Timothy Kusky at Saint Louis University. The ancient microbe dined on metal sulfide that lined the fringes of the chimneys. The oldest-known life forms on Earth are 3.5 billion-year-old clumps of bacteria found in Western Australia. That find suggested that shallow seas, not the deep oceans, were the birthplace of life. Neither discovery, however, serves as the definitive answer about life's origins.

  • Microbes feast on ocean-bottom crust

    Image: Basalt rocks
    NOAA/WHOI

    Once thought barren and sparsely populated, the deep-ocean floor is home to rich and diverse communities of bacteria. In fact, scientists have found that the seafloor contains three to four times more bacteria than the waters above, raising the question of how the organisms survive. Lab analyses suggest that chemical reactions with the rocks themselves provide the fuel for life. The discovery is another tantalizing hint that life could have originated in the ocean depths. In a statement about the find, the University of Southern California's Katrina Edwards said: "I hope that people turn their heads and notice: There's life down there."

  • Where do deep-sea fish go to spawn?

    Harbor Branch / E.widder

    Life in the dark, cold and vast depths of the sea was long thought to be lonely for the few fish that dared eke out an existence there, mostly from organic detritus that sinks from shallower waters. That picture began to change in 2006, when researchers probing the Mid-Atlantic Ridge discovered that fishes may occasionally gather at features such as seamounts to spawn. The evidence for these gatherings comes from the sheer volume of fish collected at seamounts – much higher than would have been expected if the fish were purely nomadic wanderers. What's more, images made from acoustical "scatterings" are suggestive of a massive fish aggregation. The 35-pound anglerfish shown here is one of the rare species hauled up from the deep during the project.

  • Colossal squid has, well, colossal eyes

    Image: New Zealand colossal squid
    Ross Setford  /  AP

    What did you expect? Would a colossal squid have anything but eyes big enough to generate a few over-the-top superlatives? Probably not - but still, when researchers thawed out this squid in New Zealand, the wow factor was undeniable. The creature's eye measured about 11 inches across; its lens was the size of an orange. Scientists suspect the big eye allows the huge squid to capture a lot of light in the dark depths in which it hunts. The squid weighed about 1,000 pounds when caught in the Antarctic's Ross Sea and measured 26 feet long. Scientists believe the species, which can descend to 6,500 feet, may grow as long as 46 feet.

  • Deep-sea corals record history

    Image: Scuba divers collect coral samples
    Rob Dunba  /  Stanford University

    Some coral reefs are found thousands of feet below the ocean surface, where they have grown amid frigid waters for millennia. Like tree rings, they serve as a faithful archive of global environmental change, according to Robert Dunbar, a professor of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University. His team travels the world to collect samples of these corals, such as this one from a colony near Easter Island. In 2007, the team published a 300-year archive of soil erosion in Kenya, as recorded by coral samples collected from the bottom of the Indian Ocean. They are now analyzing 4,000-year-old corals discovered off Hawaii to create an archive of climate change.

  • Trawling destruction visible from space

    Sky Truth

    Some scientists are working urgently to expose more secrets of the deep ocean before unexplored treasures are plundered. Their biggest concern is the fishing practice known as bottom trawling. This image shows the billowing plumes of sediment left in the wake of trawlers dragging giant nets across the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico. The practice has been shown to strip coral reefs bare and ravage underwater ecosystems such as seamounts, where thousands of species are known to gather. Though the practice is increasingly restricted, tens of thousands of trawlers continue to ply the deep oceans.

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