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What is OBIS?

The Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) is the information component of the Census of Marine Life (CoML), a growing network of researchers in more than 45 nations engaged in a 10-year initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the oceans - past, present, and future.

OBIS is a web-based provider of global geo-referenced information on marine species. We contain expert species level and habitat level databases and provide a variety of spatial query tools for visualizing relationships among species and their environment. OBIS strives to assess and integrate biological, physical, and chemical oceanographic data from multiple sources. Users of OBIS, including researchers, students, and environmental managers, will gain a dynamic view of the multi-dimensional oceanic world. You can explore this constantly expanding and developing facility through the OBIS Portal.

The OBIS Portal accesses data content, information infrastructure, and informatics tools - maps, visualizations, and models – to provide a dynamic, global facility in four dimensions (the three dimensions of space plus time). Potential uses are to reveal new spatial/temporal patterns; to generate new hypotheses about the global marine ecosystem; and to guide future field expeditions. The scope of OBIS offers new challenges in data management, scientific cooperation and organization, and innovative approaches to data analysis. Maintaining the principle of open access, the digital atlas developed by OBIS is expected to provide a fundamental basis for societal and governmental decisions on how to harvest and conserve marine life. The November 2000 (Vol.13 No.3) issue of Oceanography, the official magazine of The Oceanography Society, was dedicated to OBIS, and reports of meetings and workshops, together with other publications, can be found at the Documents page.


Life on Earth is made up of interrelated populations of distinct plant and animal species. Over evolutionary time, natural selection through physical and biological processes has produced the set of chemical blueprints – the unique genomes -- that define these species, maintain their integrity over successive generations, and permit favorable adaptations to flourish over time. These species-specific genomes are thus the fundamental units of life on this planet. The myriad populations of diverse species characterized by these genomes interact with the physical environment and among themselves to produce the complex spatial and temporal patterns of ecosystem function that provide the goods and services necessary for human survival. As burgeoning human societies place ever-greater demands on these natural systems, it becomes more vital to assess the current state of ecosystems on a species-specific level, to discern the changes that are taking place, and to predict future impacts of changes.

Because of their area, volume, and diversity of life, the world’s oceans are the dominant component of the biosphere. Thus, an assessment of life on Earth must in major part be an assessment of life in the world’s oceans –hence the Census of Marine Life and OBIS. The complexity of the marine ecosystem, and its interactions with social and political systems, demand an interdisciplinary and integrated approach. Traditional discipline-centered research methodologies yield a wealth of snapshots of the complex and ever-changing marine world. The challenges are to fill the gaps in these insights, to synthesize coherent patterns of marine life in space and time, and to develop testable hypotheses and predictive models of the origin and maintenance of these patterns.

Today, as never before, the tools are at hand to meet this challenge – to conduct quantitative, geographically- and temporally-explicit observations and analyses of the living ocean. Taxonomists have new tools to define and identify species through combinations of genomic and morphological analyses, greatly aided by access to worldwide knowledge resources through the Internet. Remotely sensed and in situ observations are increasingly being made available through the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), creating an unprecedented amount of geo-referenced environmental and ecosystem data. Computer and communications capabilities permit rapid assembly, and meaningful analysis of immense volumes of diverse data. Moreover, earth and life scientists have developed highly capable systems for planning, coordinating, and executing coherent and effective programs on a global scale. OBIS aims to harness these tools in playing its part in the quantum increase in knowledge about the distribution and abundance of life in the oceans that we can expect over the next ten years.

OBIS History and Federation

The initial idea for OBIS developed from a CoML-sponsored Benthic Census Meeting held in October 1997. Recommendations from this meeting led to the establishment of a prototype OBIS Web site at Rutgers in 1998 to demonstrate the initial OBIS concept. The first OBIS International Workshop was held in November 1999 in Washington, D.C. In 2000, the National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP)- requested proposals for OBIS projects and funded eight through support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Office of Naval Research, (ONR) and National Science Foundation (NSF). A more restricted NOPP competition in 2002 resulted in an additional OBIS project on Marine Mammals, Turtles, and Birds. An NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship to Karen Stocks at the San Diego Supercomputing Center resulted in a further OBIS project on Seamounts. These projects, the History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP) project, and the NSF-sponsored OBIS Portal at Rutgers University, NJ, were the initial Members of the OBIS Federation. Subsequently joining are the seven Census of Marine Life Initial Projects , the long-term Chesapeake Bay database of the Trophic Interactions in Estuarine Systems (TIES) program, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Marine and Estuarine Invasion Database. Listings of these and of tool contributors can be found at the Contributors, Partners & Links page.

In June 2001, OBIS joined 8 international organizations and 27 countries on the Governing Board of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) as an Associate Participant. GBIF is a data system for worldwide biological data, developed under the sponsorship of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (OECD). OBIS will grow in concert with GBIF to become the major component for ocean biogeography and systematics. A broad range of other affiliations has been formed which include: Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), Scientific Committee on Ocean Research (SCOR), DIVERSITAS, International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), International Association of Biological Oceanographers (IABO), the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS), United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), UNESCO Man-And-the-Biosphere (MAB), and Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS).

Governance and Organization

OBIS is structured as a federation of organizations and people sharing a vision to make marine biogeographic data, from all over the world, freely available over the World Wide Web through the OBIS Portal. OBIS elements agree to develop and promote standards and interoperability in concert with the standards and protocols being developed for other environmental data systems around the world. It is not a project or program, and is not limited to data from CoML-related projects. OBIS is not incorporated, it does not employ staff, own equipment, or apply for funding. Organizations involved in OBIS take on these responsibilities. Any organization, consortium, project or individual may contribute to OBIS (see FAQ and Technical Resources pages to find out how). OBIS is managed by an International Committee with advice from the CoML Steering Committee (see International Committee page for details).

The Chair of the OBIS International Committee, Mark Costello, is the OBIS Executive Officer, implements IC directives, arranges meetings, and facilitates communications. The Portal is under the direction of Dr. frederick Grassle and Dr. Yunqing Zhang at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.