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Marine species entangled in extra names

A comprehensive census of sea life has turned up as many as 56 names for the same creature — and conservationists say they need to clear up the confusion.
Image: A sperm whale calf
It turns out that over time one famous scientist assigned four names to the same species of sperm whale, to which this whale calf belongs. Chris Bangs / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The underwater world and the underworld have at least one thing in common — lots of aliases.

The Census of Marine Life, an effort to catalog all species of life in the oceans, has validated 122,500 species names so far, as well as 56,400 aliases, different names that have been applied to the same species over the years.

"Convincing warnings about declining fish and other marine species must rest on a valid census," Mark Costello of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, said in a statement.

"This project will improve information vital to researchers investigating fisheries, invasive species, threatened species and marine ecosystem functioning, as well as to educators," the scientist said. "It will eliminate the misinterpretation of names, confusion over Latin spellings, redundancies and a host of other problems that sow confusion and slow scientific progress."

Modern scientific naming was introduced in the 1750s by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus in an effort to organize the list of living things.

The idea was good, but over the years different scientists "discovered" and named what turned out to be the same thing, resulting in more than one scientific name for several species.

Halichondria panicea — the breadcrumb sponge — is the champ so far, having been given 56 names in the scientific literature since it was first named in 1766, according to researchers compiling the census. Among them: Alcyonium manusdiaboli (1794), Spongia compacta (1806), Halichondria albescens (1818) and Seriatula seriata (1826).

Not even Linnaeus was exempt, research shows. It turns out that over time he assigned four names to the same species of sperm whale.

So the census is compiling a World Register of Marine Species to sort out the nomenclature, a project that shed light on the many aliases of sea creatures.

When they discover marine species with more than one scientific name, the oldest one wins, but the others are listed in the register for cross reference.

The register is being hosted by the Flanders Marine Institute in Belgium.

"Describing species without a universal register in place is like setting up a library without an index catalog," said Philippe Bouchet, a census scientist.

The first Census of Marine Life is expected to be released in 2010 including more than 230,000 species, but that is only a fraction of the species thought to exist in the oceans.

Researchers are cataloging about 1,400 new marine species each year, a rate experts say will take more than five centuries to complete the total list.