Launched three years ago on a mission to study the health of the world's oceans, the research schooner 'Tara' returned from its 112,000 kilometre journey to report that it had found over 1.4 million previously-undiscovered species of marine organisms.
The Tara Oceans mission is a collaboration of 126 scientists and 70 crew members, from 35 different countries, to make a global study of ocean plankton. It's two and a half year trek took it from Lorient, France, down through the Mediterranean and Red Seas to the Gulf of Oman, past India, Madagascar and around the southern tip of Africa to Brazil, then to the Antarctic Peninsula, up on a circuitous route around the Pacific to San Diego, CA, then down through the Panama Canal, through the Caribbean and up the U.S. east coast, and then finally across the Atlantic back to Lorient.
Taking water samples along the way, the scientists fulfilled one of their mission objectives by cataloguing species of single-celled ocean life called 'protists' — which include algae and plankton — and made an amazing discovery.
"Formerly there were estimated to be about 80,000 species of protists on the planet. The Tara Oceans expedition has identified at first glance about 1,500,000!" said Chris Bowler, one of the mission's scientific coordinators, in a July interview in French popular science magazine La Recherche.
The mission photo gallery can be viewed at this link.
"We will now be able to measure the impact of climate change on planktonic ecosystems at the very base of the food chain," said Bowler. "We plan to establish mathematical models concerning their evolution in function of environmental factors, to anticipate their potential degradation."
According to the Tara Oceans website, a database of their findings, called 'Biobank', will be available for researchers by 2014.
The Tara Oceans mission is planning to set sail again, headed towards the Arctic Ocean in May of next year, with further plans to explore Pacific coral reefs in 2014.