Biological Oceanography

Biological oceanography is the study of life in the oceans—the distribution, abundance, and production of marine species along with the processes that govern species' spread and development.

In the Joint Program, biological oceanography is also a study in extremes...

  • In size, from the tiny microbes in the water column to the 30-meter blue whale
  • In depth, from blooms of cyanobacteria covering thousands of square kilometers of the ocean's surface, to hydrothermal vent colonies emerging eerily from the mile-deep dark
  • In locale, from the lab next door to the deck of a research vessel bucking ice flows in the Arctic

Extreme habitats

Studying organisms that occupy extreme habitats, such as the deep sea or polar regions, presents major challenges for accessibility and sampling. Meeting these challenges has had exciting results. The discovery of biological communities near hydrothermal vents, for example, led to new perceptions about the evolution of life, the discovery of unusual symbioses, and new insights on adaptation in the deep sea.

Lab to ocean

Another set of challenges lies in comparing data from lab experiments and observations on individual organisms with the patterns we see during field studies and ocean cruises. Laboratory work, such as isolating cyanobacteria in pure culture or sequencing genomes, underlies our interpretation of how populations respond in nature.

Different faces of biological oceanography

Biological oceanographers study:

  • Chemical and physical factors influencing distribution patterns
  • Physiological, behavioral, and biochemical adaptations to environmental variables, including natural variations in food, temperature, pressure, light, and the chemical environment
  • Food chain dynamics
  • Nutrient cycling and initial steps of chemical energy fixation
  • Responses to the results of man's activities in the oceans

In this broad range of work, you can see the many faces of biological oceanography. Answering research questions may require studies in microbiology, planktonology, ichthyology, benthic biology, taxonomy, ecology, biogeochemistry, cell biology, physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, animal behavior, bioacoustics, and applied mathematics.

Interdisciplinary work

In the Joint Program, investigators in many disciplines work together with a unified goal of understanding the interactions between organisms and between organisms and the environment. The chemical and physical processes that influence species distribution and abundance are an integral part of biological oceanography. Likewise, biological processes in the oceans influence the chemistry of the seas, sediments, and even the atmosphere on local and global scales.

Research tools and techniques

To explore and define the roles of organisms in the marine environment, biological oceanographers employ a wide range of research tools and techniques. There are many technological challenges in the development of new instrumental and analytical techniques. The technological future of biological oceanography depends on advances in methods of data acquisition, sampling and culture techniques, and parallel progress in most fields of biology.

Researchers also adapt existing methodologies, such as flow cytometry, immunology, and high-resolution video analysis, to work in both the lab and the field.

Unique opportunity to combine approaches

The Joint Program offers a unique opportunity for training and research in areas that combine different approaches to the study of biological oceanography. For example, you can:

  • Learn the principles and methodologies of molecular biology and apply this knowledge in the study of complex marine systems in areas such as molecular phylogeny and population genetics
  • Apply bioacoustics to the study of spatial and temporal patterns in the distribution and abundance of marine organisms
  • Apply mathematics to the development of population models