World Animal Day: Why We Need to Conserve the Diversity of Marine Life
Those of us who live in India are no strangers to stray animals, as cows are often found wandering through streets alongside traffic and dogs spotted napping in the shade under a shop awning. The constant presence of land animals in our lives means that we tend to forget about the lives of those under the sea. Considering the fact that over 80% of the oceans are entirely unmapped and unknown to humans, it’s no surprise that the conversation on animal welfare tends to steer away from the wellbeing of marine life and instead focuses on the animals that we are in close contact with.
Despite this, there is a wealth of research currently being conducted on marine life and the key role that our actions have in their wellbeing. Each year, approximately 2,000 marine species are discovered, and this year’s highlights, according to the World Register of Marine Species, include the red wide-bodied pipefish and a new species of tardigrade, the tree-of-life tardigrade. Illustrating the unique adaptability of ocean species, the red wide-bodied pipefish were able to evade discovery by perfectly camouflaging with its habitat of red algae and sponges, mimicking their long, thin shape and red color. The phylum of tardigrades, also called water bears and moss piglets, have been observed by humans for over two hundred years, but we never fail to marvel at the diversity and survivability present within this phylum, and tree-of-life tardigrades are yet another example of this variety. Other species of the resilient micro-animals have been observed as able to tolerate some of the most extreme conditions on the planet and are usually found in dunes, coasts, and marine sediments. Tardigrades were even exposed to the vacuum of space in a mission organized by Swedish and German scientists with the purpose of implementing their high adaptability to a new variety of extreme conditions, demonstrating the eagerness to understand the fundamental functions of life through the study of their capabilities. Finding innovative solutions in this field is inherently linked to conserving the diversity of the natural world, which has its roots in respecting and understanding species.
Because their existence is sheltered by the vast depths of the ocean, many are unaware of the overwhelming diversity present in marine life, and how the organic circumstances of their lives have begun to deviate as a direct result of our actions on land. The increasingly tenuous relationship between terrestrial and marine life is in part due to concerns regarding recent climate-related effects on marine life and on an increased risk of extinction for some forms of marine life. While the rate of extinction is far lower for ocean animals than it is for those on land, animals such as Steller’s sea cow or the New Zealand grayling have faded into extinction before we began to recognize their significance, decades in the future. Scientists found that one out of every 11 eurytheses plasticus, a species of crustacean only discovered in 2020, had microplastic in their digestive tract. While the ramifications may be on the peripheral of our minds, the actions of society can send ripples into ecosystems beyond our scope of perception. The grander impacts of plastic pollution have been comprehensively documented, as estimates show that every year, 12 million metric tons of plastic find their way into the ocean through streams, breeze, or unknowing carelessness.
While the effects of plastic pollution on marine life are frequently discussed, the relationship between sea animals and climate change is much deeper than plastic straws. The increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, caused by the heightened consumption of fossil fuels, such as crude oil, in the last century, pose pervasive and long-term consequences for ocean life, including the increase in ocean temperature, an effect you might be familiar with. Ocean warming softens the blow of climate change by controlling the temperature on land, preventing an excess increase in heat that would make the Earth’s surface no longer habitable. However, animals, plants, and other organisms living in the ocean are not shielded from the effects, namely ocean acidification, rising sea levels, and deoxygenation. The 25% increase in the acidity of the ocean since the Industrial Revolution could hinder the growth of skeletons in marine life, or even entirely dissolve them. It can also have impacts on the development of larvae that decrease their chances of survival since certain organisms are not equipped to handle the increased acidity. The rise of sea level, caused by the melting of glaciers and the expansion of water due to heat, can impact endangered land animals who live near the coast, and it can interrupt the migration patterns of sea animals, disrupting their natural ecosystems. Ocean deoxygenation, or the loss of oxygen in the ocean, can be caused both by the warming of the ocean and by the runoff of sewage, and could potentially result in the disruption of ecosystems as species vulnerable to low oxygen levels migrate in search of a suitable climate.
The murky depths of the ocean are home to 0.3 to 100 million distinctive species of marine life, according to varying estimates, and only 226,000 of these have been officially discovered. While the wellbeing of these creatures, which vary from alien-like to surprisingly familiar, may seem outside of our control, as global citizens it is our responsibility to acknowledge the impacts, both beneficial and detrimental, that we can have on all organisms, not just those which are within our range of perception. Considering our layered relationship with animals not yet comprehensively observed by the human eye, we must take measures to ensure that in our future lies in the coexistence of terrestrial and aquatic life.