New Delhi: Till a few years ago, the Indian contribution to marine life databases was minimal. But if you were to trawl through one today, you’ll come across a slew of unmistakably “Indian" names such as Krohnitta balagopali and Sagitta meenakshiae, predatory worms named by their discoverer Vijayalakshmi Nair after her children; Kochimysis pillaii, a shrimp-like creature found in the backwaters of Kochi; and Hylascus andamanensis, a deep-sea sponge discovered in the Andaman Sea.

The hunt: Marine sampling in progress in the Indian Ocean. Loka Bharathi / National Institute of Oceanography

At least 30 new species, from mites and predatory marine worms to crabs that live around undersea volcanic vents, have been discovered in the five years that the secretariat of the Indian Ocean Census of Marine Life (IO-CoML) has been in operation.

The results of the Census of Marine Life (CoML), the first and most comprehensive survey of the world’s marine life, are going to be out in October 2010, but scientists at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa say that the survey is already changing our understanding of life under the surface of the Indian Ocean.

Listen to an interview with Mohideen Wafar, head of the Indian Ocean Census of Marine Life

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Click here to view a slideshow of photographs and images pertaining to the Census

“The idea of the census is not only to enumerate the life forms in the sea. We also want to delve into the past to find out what lived in our oceans, examine the present to see how creatures live there now, and predict the future based on current patterns of human activity," says Mohideen Wafar, chairman, IO-CoML.

CoML is coordinated by a group of scientists based at the Consortium of Ocean Leadership in Washington, DC. Twelve regional committees, of which IO-CoML is one, are responsible for its implementation. The project has involved around 2,000 researchers from institutes and universities in 80 countries around the world.

To manage its scale and ambition, the census has been divided into 18 different programmes. Some like Census of Marine Zooplankton deal only with marine zooplankton, while others like Continental Margin Ecosystems examine the biodiversity of continental slopes, the transition zones where continents fall into deep sea. The History of Marine Animal Populations looks at historical records to see how the populations of different species have changed over millennia.

The programmes have added 5,600 new species to the inventory of marine life, and have revealed some incredible new facts. Researchers in the North and South poles have found that the polar oceans share 235 species despite a distance of around 11,000km separating them.

New find: Anisomysis minicoyensis, a shrimp-like creature discovered by researchers in Lakshadweep. Biju Abraham

In India, most of the programmes are being handled by the National Institute of Oceanography, but a number of other organizations such as the National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources in Lucknow and the Centre of Advanced Study in Marine Biology in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district have also been involved.

“It’s a very tough job," says Wafar, “and our resources are limited." The focus, according to him, has so far been on studying larger organisms and species of commercial value. Many species that could have potential medicinal value haven’t been documented. “It’s been difficult to persuade researchers to work on taxonomy or classical biodiversity. Most tend to focus on areas like biotechnology."

Despite the constraints, Wafar seems happy with the progress the projects are making.

“We were the first country in the world to have a workshop on marine ‘barcoding’ techniques," he says. “It’s the only unequivocal way of species identification in changing environments." According to him, it has other uses too. It’s been used to check food purity and track environmental pollution.

And as a recent incident in Kerala where the forest department prosecuted whale shark smugglers on the basis of DNA analysis of small pieces of meat seized from them demonstrates, it can also be crucial to wildlife conservation.

The project will continue beyond 2010. The aim is to barcode nearly 3,000 species from India. IO-CoML has managed to get government funding of Rs80 lakh to barcode species from Lakshadweep over the next three years, and a few more proposals are in the pipeline.

The biodiversity of India’s shoreline is being measured for the first time by the Natural Geography in Shore Areas project. One coastal monitoring station in Lakshadweep and two in Goa now collect samples regularly, which are then systematically analysed and compared with previous samples.

It’s too early to detect long term changes, but scientists hope that a few years of sampling will not only allow them to see how factors such as global warming are affecting India’s coastline but will also allow them to correlate biodiversity changes with declining fishing yields.

One of the biggest achievements of the IO-CoML so far has been the creation of the Indian Ocean Biogeographical Information System, till date the most comprehensive inventory of marine and estuarine species in the Indian Ocean. The database allows users to “see" the distribution of species by location, depth and time (now and in the past). “It also assesses the species’ vulnerability to natural and man-made changes," says Baban Ingole, India manager for the project.

“As a result of the census many new technologies are now available to Indian researchers. It’s been a great way of sensitizing people," says Wafar.

However, the project is behind schedule. Scouring the murkiest depths and cataloguing the smallest single-celled organisms has been challenging business. Ingole, who has been working on the Continental Margin Biodiversity programme, has discovered at least five new species on every expedition.

Lack of manpower and a dedicated ship has, however, been a constraint. “There are so many undiscovered species out there," Ingole remarks, “that every expedition can easily add 10 new species to the list."

“More than what we’ve learnt," agrees Wafar modestly, “it’s the amount we don’t know and have yet to learn that is scary."