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LSU Takes Part in International Census of Marine Life

Marine scientists record more than 17,500 species – and the project doesn’t end until Oct. 2010

Robert Carney, professor of oceanography at LSU, is leading a team of scientists from the United States and France through the final stages of a project that, when complete, will yield the most comprehensive details ever of the fauna of the continental slopes.

The COMARGE, or Continental Margin Ecosystems, project, which will conclude in Oct. 2010, is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. To date, the researchers have announced the cataloguing of more than 17,500 species in the depths – and the project still has just under a year to go before completion.

Researchers for the Census of Marine Life examine a specimen caught during a research expedition.

COMARGE, led by Carney and his French colleague, Myriam Sibuet of the Institut Oceanographique in Paris, is just part of the international effort supported by the Sloan Foundation called “Census of Marine Life,” an umbrella of global ocean activities that began in 2000. In December 2007, Discover Magazine called the “Census of Marine Life” one of the six most important experiments in the world. Now, final results are close at hand, and preliminary findings are being made public.

COMARGE has developed a cadres of more than 100 participating scientists world-wide and 180 oceanographic cruises have been undertaken, making COMARGE a mechanism for collaboration and data comparison.

“Major efforts synthesizing results have confirmed that continental slopes through the entire ocean share a basic pattern of species change zonation with depth,” Carney said. “Much more enigmatic is finding that the number of deep-sea species tends to be at a maximum low on the continental slope worldwide. The mystery lies in the fact that it seems to be a homogenous environment with little food, an unlikely place to find biodiversity rivaling that of tropical rain forests.”

Carney’s status as principal investigator and co-director of COMARGE is one of the highlights of a career filled with studies of the ocean and its inhabitants.

“My interest in ocean environments began during family vacations we took when I was a child,” said Carney. “We often visited Sanibel Island off the Gulf of Mexico, and I became instantly intrigued by all the fauna I saw during our trips there. In college, I began going to sea on research cruises and first encountered the unusual animals of deep water.”

The purpose of COMARGE is to substantially advance knowledge of the ecology of the continental slopes. Much of this advancement has come to link deep sea experts like Carney and facilitate the sharing of data, collaboration with the goal of reaching a new understanding of the deep and allow them to share research opportunities to conduct fieldwork at sea using the latest and greatest technology.

“As an experienced world-class university, LSU has handled the challenges associated with leading such a massive project with a total funding of four million dollars,” Carney said. “In fact, COMARGE and LSU sponsored a workshop on deep South American and Antarctic fauna just last month, and a new effort is just being started on campus to construct a museum exhibit at the Museum of Bergern-Norway and transport it to the Smithsonian for display in 2010.”

Accommodating the contractual needs inherent in such an impressive research project falls upon LSU support personnel. It’s not an easy job, but Carney said that he is consistently impressed with the effort and professionalism shown by them.

“Involvement in high-profile international research groups is proof of the quality of researchers we have here,” said Carney. “Our support staff play an integral role in our ability to do so, one that may be threatened by the impending budget cuts to higher education in Louisiana.”

As part of COMARGE, Carney was at sea during September, when he got to sail out to the hydrocarbon seeps off of Louisiana on the continental margins. His cruise included visits to some of the longest-running continuous experiments ever undertaken in the deep ocean – marker floats placed in the water some 20 years ago that are now covered with deep sea corals, providing accurate estimates for growth rate of these endangered species.

The sunless deep-sea is the largest environment on Earth and the least well-known. Continental margins are between 200 and 3,500 meters in depth and comprise a special part of that system. Researchers have proposed that these areas are of great scientific interest because they may contain more species of life than any other place on Earth – including rainforests. But the margins are important in other practical ways, too. In the Gulf of Mexico, they are of special interest because of the extensive oil deposits found there.

The International Census of Marine Life, and COMARGE in particular, has attracted extensive media interest, being featured by approximately 1,000 media outlets across the globe.

“I think that the deep-sea environment fascinates people – it’s mysterious, not very well understood and may yield discoveries that are quite beneficial to mankind,” Carney said. “I’m very proud to be a part of such an extensive, collaborative effort, and LSU’s role as a leading institution in oceanographic research has certainly contributed greatly to the project.”

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation makes grants in science, technology and the quality of American life. The Sloan Industry Studies program seeks to develop a deep understanding of industries by supporting academic research grounded in direct observation. For more information, visit

For more details about the comprehensive International Census of Marine Life, visit for photos, video releases and a detailed press release.


Ashley Berthelot | Editor | Office of Communications & University Relations
November 2009