TABLE 1 Examples of the Magnitude of Underdescribed Biodiversity Among Marine Invertebrates in Familiar and Easily Accessible Marine Environments



Number of Undescribed Species out of Total Collected in the Taxon


Gulf of Mexico

Copepods (harpacticoids)

19-27 of 29 (shelf site, 18 m)

D. Thistle

New Guinea

Snails, sea slugs

310 of 564 (one lagoon)

T. Gosliner


Snails, sea slugs

135 of 320 (one island, multiple sites)

T. Gosliner

Georges Bank

Marine polychaete worms

124 of 372 (shallow shelf, multiple stations)

J. Blake


Marine polychaete worms

112 of 158 (6 liters of coral reef sediment, one island)

Dutch (1988)

Great Barrier Reef

Marine flatworms (polyclads)

123 of 134 (two islands)

Newman and Cannon (1994)

aPersonal communication to J.T. Carlton unless indicated otherwise.

NOTE: The third column represents an estimate of the number of undescribed species of a given taxon found in samples taken at the site and habitat indicated. Sampling effort and number of samples varied among studies.

this report, this does not mean that every species in a system must be described in order to understand that system. Rather, sufficient knowledge of the breadth and depth of the diversity of animals, plants, microbes, and other life present at a site or in a region is needed to understand the ecological roles of abundant and critical species and the functioning of the ecosystem. These considerations are not limited to ecological interest; as with the discovery of previously newly described terrestrial species which proved to be of biomedical value, the next newly described organism in the sea could prove to be a key species in the rapidly developing field of marine biotechnology (see Box 14).

Significant Opportunities for Forging New Horizons

Although the number of undescribed, underdescribed, and inaccurately described species in the oceans appears daunting, new techniques and approaches are rapidly improving the ability to detect and describe the genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity of the oceans.

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