Take a breath. Now take another: you could say that the oxygen in one of those two breaths was produced by green plants on land, the oxygen in the other by floating phytoplankton in the oceans.
Life in the oceans has sustained human civilization and development for millennia, from providing food and nourishment, material for handicraft and construction, to the very air we breathe. Today, about half of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere is produced in the ocean, every second breath we take. Before the evolution of land plants 400 Million years ago, for billions of years all oxygen in the atmosphere was produced by microscopic phytoplankton.
For the very first time, on March 3rd, 2019, the United Nations Development Program World Wildlife Day unites the world in honoring the natural heritage of biodiversity in the oceans. Themed Life Below Water: For People & Planet, the celebration aims to highlight critical issues surrounding the fragile beauty of our oceans, and the dire need to increase our collective efforts to conserve the complexity that typifies their inherent beauty.
The Wesleyan Natural History Collections house a vast number of marine specimens, forms which were alive or only just dead when collected in the 19th Century, and fossils, many dating back hundreds of millions of years. In fact, the majority of our collections consists of marine organisms, including sponges, corals, molluscan seashells, brachiopods, bryozoans, star fish, worms, fish, marine mammals and many more. Among these, the seashells make up a major part of the collection, numbering some tens of thousands, many of which were acquired before the opening of the former Wesleyan Museum in Judd Hall, with a large purchase of some 9,000 seashells from the Shurtleff Collection in 1868.
All life evolved beneath the waves. In fact, it took 3 billion years after the first life forms evolved on Earth for the first animals and plants to start moving onto land. During the largest diversification event in Earth’s history, the Cambrian Explosion, ~541 million years ago, all known past and present major groups (Phyla) of animals had already originated. Some animals adopted a terrestrial lifestyle, such as arthropods, mollusks, and chordates – which includes us – and many worms. Others remained exclusively marine, such as star fish and sea urchins, jellyfish and corals. All major groups of animals are represented below the waves, where many more Phyla of animals live than there are on land.
Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, UN Assistant Secretary General and Director of UNDP’s Bureau for Policy and Programme Support notes, “Oceans regulate our climate, produce half the oxygen we breathe, provide nourishment for 3+ billion people, and absorb 30% of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and fully 90% of the heat from climate change. To ensure that oceans and marine species are preserved and protected, nature-based solutions that bring together public, private and civil society partners need to be replicated and scaled-up.”
The mysteries of the oceans have captivated the imagination of humans since antiquity, with many accounts of mythical creatures, some fictitious and others real – or slightly exaggerated – animals, filled our literary and artistic inspiration. The depths of the oceans are the world’s largest habitat. With technological advances, including remotely operated vehicles, underwater drones, and sensors mounted on marine animals, the unexplored depths of the oceans have become the new frontier of scientific surveys.