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Among sea's big surprises? Meat-eating sponges

An ongoing census of ocean life tallies 40,000 species, rich diversity.

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Tracey Sutton is not your typical census taker.

Instead of pounding the pavement seeking heads of household, he combs museum collections and spends weeks cruising the ocean to learn what thrives in the deep.

His efforts are part of a 10-year project to complete the first census of marine life. Wednesday, project officials provided a midway tally of their findings so far - more than 40,000 species identified, many new to science, and a surprising amount of diversity in regions once thought to be bereft of much sea life.

They've discovered, for instance, meat-eating sea sponges, and they've tracked a blue-fin tuna as it crossed the Pacific three times in less than two years.

The aim of the 73-nation project reaches far beyond cataloging the new and unusual. Ultimately, the results are expected to help humans manage marine resources in a sustainable way, researchers say.

"One of the best products from the census so far is the information that allows us to ask better questions," says Dr. Sutton, a researcher at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Fla. "We've started to go from 'what's here?' to 'why is it here and how much does it vary?' " Answers to those questions, he says, "are what we need to protect the ocean."

The census grew out of a 1995 report from the National Academies of Science describing a startling level of ignorance about ocean biodiversity, notes Ron O'Dor, the project's chief scientist. The deep-sea floor covers nearly 116 million square miles at an average depth of 2.5 miles. The area the census has sampled so far would cover only a handful of football fields.

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